Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Old Man and the Referendum

Old men are a rare sight around here - a seventy-year-old must have
survived no fewer than four major wars, two likely as a combatant and
two likely as a refugee. The old man that shows up at our compound now
from time to time, even considering the scarcity of the elderly, is a
sight to behold.
I don't know his name; it seems no one does except him because
everyone refers to him either as The Mose (which means old man) or The
Old Man. Even when he introduces himself by name, the name slips
immediately from the hearer's ears. There are men here in their 30s
and 40s who remember the old man from their youth, men who consider
him like an uncle or a mentor, who never refer to him by name but
speak of him reverentially.
His head is bald save for a tuft of brittle white hair above either
ear, and he wears enormous bifocals as thick as glass bottle bottoms
with a frame often held together by electrical tape. He requires the
use of a cane to walk, his left leg always held completely straight -
and even then he is only capable of a few short steps at a time. He
smiles often, revealing a mouth that is well on its way to
When he opens his mouth to speak, though, he speaks with a crisp
patrician diction whose unparalleled enunciation catches the ear. He
was likely educated in a British system, long before conflict took
hold of his country and rendered harsh judgment on the educational
I have heard him speak because he has taken to moving from town to
town and from church to church within each town to stand before as
many congregations as he can every Sunday until the referendum to
plead for peace. Dressed in gray flannel trousers, an open collar
shirt, and a navy blazer, he pushes himself up on his cane and turns
to his audience. He has three pages of notes written in a clear hand,
and before he speaks he begs the assistance of the pastor and declares
without shame that he can't actually see what he has written, so the
pastor will have to feed him his lines.
The first line reads, "Tell them their God is with them."
The pastor whispers to him, "Tell them their God is with them."
The old man's voice resounds, "Your God is with you!"
It continues on like this for three or four lines, but then something
happens. The prompts from the pastor act as a spark and enkindle the
passion inside him, and he begins to string together line after line
of rhetoric about the value of peace in times of conflict, about the
democratic process, about the role of citizens, about the many things
that the South Sudanese have to be grateful for. There is a
translator, as there always is in official meetings in a country where
the people speak dozens of different languages, and this translator
struggles to keep up with the old man as he speaks, but the old man
never falters and from time to time corrects the translator with a
more apt turn of phrase.
He closes by reminding the people that they had another opportunity
for freedom fifty years ago, an opportunity that was squandered by
rampant fear-mongering andgreedy tribal chieftains who colluded to
sell their birthright. He calls to their attention the tragic number
of lives lost because of that folly, and he asks that those lives
would be the payment rendered for this generation to taste freedom.
Then he thanks the people, and - with every bone in his appendages
quavering - lowers himself back into his chair.
Later he'll ride as a passenger on a motorcycle - one hand clutching
his cane the other holding on to the bike - to the next church or a
radio station or anywhere that he can speak his message. Late in the
evening he'll eat with his hosts if food is offered, and he'll wait
for someone to offer him a ride home. He might not be noticed for
several hours because he sits with great contentment, but in time
someone will say, "Get the motorcycle keys, so I can take The Old Man
home," and into the night he'll disappear.

No comments:

Post a Comment