A Parliament of Birds in South Sudan
by Stephen Chan
Like a reality show, 38 English people, almost all with diaorrhea, began pushing the bus and digging it out of the sand, much to the silent bemusement of the Arab drivers who knew that the battery had stopped charging and that even if dug out of the sand trap, the bus would go nowhere. But the English are irrepressible and ancient officer-class memories surfaced in the desert heat as all shouted orders to a dwindling cadre of rank-and-file. Everyone was at least a captain by the time rescuers arrived. I had got three hours of tolerable, if sweat-drenched, sleep in the dark interior of the bus as the 'mad dogs and Englishmen' adage proved itself true once again.
Sudan, in its imperialised history, was where the "blacks were ruled by the blues", i.e. by the sports champions and Gentlemen Thirds of Oxbridge. Those with brains went to rule India. To this day, the braying syllables from green shires and counties are heard with disobedient derision by unspeaking employees who, far from being incompetent, are determined to do things, if not their own way, in any way that is not the English way.
You don't grow great civilisations without some forms of logic and industry, and the remains of the old temples in the desert - Egyptian derivatives with African emblems and features, kings with African faces, lions - told a story of cities that once served the trade routes and nomadic tribes on what were savannah lands and is now desert.
The south is greener, but all the flight up from Juba, I kept wondering if I would have gone to war for almost 50 years for what passed by down there. For what that could not have been negotiated? Could anything have been negotiated at all? Now, finally, recent negotiations had led to a wretched election, and into this wretched election came a motley band of English observers. True and blue? White and mostly red, by the end of it. It was a mistake in some ways for me. I have very firm ideas on how to do these things and with whom to do them. But I had, many years ago, vowed to Cirino I would come to help midwife his country, South Sudan, into independence. First an election, then a referendum. And, one day, the phone went and I said, 'yes', and now here I was with a group of well-meaning, quite brave, but (for the most part) far-from-hardened observers. Those who had once been hardened, the former military officers, were anxious to strut their credentials, and just looked former. I wore impeccably white shirts every day almost to spite them, said very little, and in a succession of dusty villages and grimy slums, washing in dirty water and sleeping on floors, did all I was asked to do. One sweltering late afternoon in Rumbek, a seven-hour jolting drive from Juba, I held the satellite phone a foot from my ear. "What's that? You want me and my team to withdraw to base? Security problem? Sorry, what's that? I can't hear you." Making the phone go dead was a great pleasure. A very great pleasure.
Of course it's impossible not to use military analogies in a militarised environment. It had been a very long war. I switched off the phone. Every field command, anywhere, detests its high command. Every high command detests its political masters. The further you are from the field, the more death and suffering become notional. Blairite abstractions. Little absolutions on a rosary. A soul for a bead. It does not look like that in the field. Nor does the high command's sudden panics about the safety of its field operatives. We were perfectly safe, given the context we knew we were moving into. Get off my phone. I'm going to do what you asked me to do here.
And be distracted from time to time by the great birds: the tame vultures who live off the village cafes, the Marabou storks who look like vultures, the kites that look like small eagles and, in their grandeur, inhabit the ecological niche of sparrows. And one day, as I crashed around yet another rutted bend in the dirt road, saw an opening in the cliff. The cliff enclosed a lake and, on the perches right around sat a parliament of 200 black and white storks and herons. And then I had jolted past. But I knew I had heard them speaking and debating. They had elected a Speaker. They were planning the future and - in the bone-weary, hungry, parched and diaorrhea-ridden body that was somehow still attached to me - I felt such an irrepressible bolt of joy, pure blue joy, that I believed in that instant that the tenuous Sudanese peace would last. And no nigh commander or political figure will ever have such an epiphany, see a vision on the dusty road between Juba and Rumbek that was gentler than St Paul's, but as powerful.
Not just for me the epiphany of birds. Sandy, with his team in a leaking metal barge, sweating down the Nile, looking for polling stations, suddenly encountered a colony of red bee-eaters as they flew in a mass above the boat, formig a pulsating scarlet halo, momentarily blocking out the brilliant blue sky, providing shade, a thousand fluttering fans, a benediction. Sandy wanted to kneel to pray - did so in his heart, then saw all his team members had placed a hand upon their chests.
Tony got the assignment I'd wanted - monitoring the minefields of Torit. I got the cattle-rustling lands of Rumbek. Toby had been a soldier, after all, and knew about mines. But he and Sandy were two of a handful who had enough experience to be there. Two-thirds of the observers were a pub team. Enough experience and enough empathy. Many of those carrying guns had gone to war as children, and were still not old enough to vote. We turned a few blind eyes to teenagers clutching their parents' voting cards. Enock was one such, jumping up and down and wanting a ride in our car. "All I can do is to look down the road as you walk into that polling booth," I smiled to him. If you can call them roads. I think there were five kilometres of paved road in Juba and nothing else in Sudan. Roads first, otherwise there will be no way to deliver medicine to the empty clinics. When it's about to turn into full-blown AIDS, the eyes grow rounded like haunted clocks. Then you look at the observers driving away in their white cars. If they're pampered EU observers, they will be giant four-wheel drives ordered just for the election, each of which could feed a village for a decade. You know: there are large hypocrisies in election observation. You turn blind eyes to yourself as well. You need the birds to say they absolve you. God knows your need. He knows you can fool yourself, so he gives you merely a spectacle.But I do not believe my Parliament of Birds was just a spectacle.
Eighteen years ago in the muddy streets of Asmara, Eritrea, Cirino had prayed on my behalf for my sick mother after first having led me to eat with the poor in their slums. I myself cannot pray. Now, as I was eating beside the Nile, Cirino walked, growing towards me in the dark, arms outstretched, and we embraced so warmly that every table fell silent to watch. It was for his malarial country I had come, and I take the Parliament of Birds as my reward.