Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Juba, Part 1

A month ago, Sarah and I found ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to visit Juba (municipal motto: "Coming soon: a real city!") - the capital of South Sudan (national motto, with thanks to Danie Hauer: "There's no way of knowing!" which is the most correct answer to almost any question a person might ask about the new country). It is noteworthy that it has taken me a month to even touch this topic; I want to remember as little of it as possible, so think of this entry more as an act of catharsis on my part than anything else.

Juba is a city of readily apparent contradictions. Along the river Nile lies a long expanse of private compounds, each hiding an upscale hotel behind its gates. Of course, describing a hotel in Juba as "upscale" is a bit inaccurate. Nearly every upscale Juba hotel is a grossed collection of prefabricated boxes with individual air conditioning units whirring away and the promise of a bed, satellite television, and a hot shower within. A more appropriate term for this kind of hotel is "expensive" or maybe "exorbitantly expensive", with prices for a room for one person starting $150. The reason that the term expensive is not applied, however, is because in Juba this is the starting point for the price of a hotel room, and the constant presence of innumerable foreign NGOs ensures that these hotels are fully booked.

Immediately inland from these hotels lie fields of shanties built of sticks, cardboard, and tarp - each inspiring the observer to marvel at how a family could fit themselves inside, but somehow they do (as to the exact method? There's no way of knowing). No matter how many times one stumbles upon these shanty towns immediately juxtaposed against an image of prosperity, it never fails to darken the spirits at least a little. In Juba, I found myself wondering how these families felt about life in Juba as compared to life in he refugee camps from which they likely came, and I realized I couldnt conceive of an appropriate response.

Sarah and I found the prospect of spending two-thirds of our monthly income on a two night hotel stay daunting. By a fluke of chance, we happened upon the phone number for a Catholic retreat center that offered the very reasonable rate of $50 for a double room - the caveat being that it offered neither conditioned air, nor television of any kind, nor hot showers (though the kind sister who took our reservation assured me that the bathroom and shower were self-contained in the room). After I had made the booking, I asked where exactly in Juba the retreat center was located and was told to call before I arrived for precise directions.

The morning we were set to depart Nimule for Juba I did just that, and while the answer I got wasn't exact, it was a start: "go to the Aquana factory and call me from there." Despite the fact that I had no idea what the Aquana factory was nor where it was located nor how the word Aquana was spelled, I felt confident that once we got to Juba somebody would be able to get us there. That confidence began to dissolve in the Juba bus park as I asked one motorcycle taxi after another if he could take us to the Aquana factory and was greeted with blank stares and shrugged shoulders (where's the Aquana factory? There's no way of knowing). When finally a driver gave us a confident nod that he knew where the Aquana factory was, I put Sarah on the back of his bike, found one of the clueless drivers, ordered him to follow the non-clueless driver, then squeezed myself and the suitcase that held clothing for Sarah and I for an eight day trip to Ethiopia onto the back of his bike. This arrangement pushed me up against the driver in a manner that is as physically intimate as I have ever been with another man.

At the Aquana factory a short, plain woman ambled up to us and told us to follow her, which we did - on foot, around puddles and along stretches of road turned to heavy reddish mud, with one of us carrying an enormous suitcase. We walked alongside one of those heart-crushing shanty fields, across from which was a walled compound with a small gate, which we went through and found ourselves in the surprisingly verdant courtyard of the Friendship Guest House. The woman, who I took for a nun, sat us down and got us each a cold bottle of water.

For the first time in my life, I actually experienced something I've long espoused: in an unknown, uncertain, and potentially unfriendly environment, the demonstration of Catholic kindness and hospitality hits the soul with incomparable resonance. Despite my own wishes otherwise, I'll probably have to go back to Juba someday, and when I do I'll take solace in knowing that I can stay with the Catholics.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Library, Part 2

(You can find part 1 of this story here)

One day while you're still recovering your strength and learning to trust your stomach again, you find yourself sitting with a small group of small boys and reading to them again from the same book that you've read from a hundred times. Somehow, they still love it - they love pointing to the picture and telling you what is happening on the page, then telling you what will happen on the next page, and the older ones even love showing off and reading a few words here and there. You start to say something to them, as you've said to them each of the last dozen times you've read from this book, but this time instead of "one day we'll have a whole library of books" or "one day we'll open up those 18 boxes of books in our library," what comes out is "do you guys want to read some new books?"

Something in their eyes - the incredulity tempered by a spark of curiosity - sets something off. By the time you're opening the door of the library, a group of 3 boys has become a group of 6 which soon becomes a group of 8 and then 10. They seem to understand intrinsically that the 35 pound boxes they are handling are worth more than their weight in gold: the first box that each boy opens reveals its contents, and - without fail - their jaws drop and eyes widen.

One box contains nothing but chapter books - The Westing Game, Indian In The Cupboard, Island of the Blue Dolphins - the books that you may have read in your boyhood, and they transport you back. Without meaning to, you're holding up books and whispering in reverent tones simple sentiments like, "oh, wow, you're going to love this." Book after book after book comes out of the box, and each one carries in its title a unique and precious memory. The boys are stunned that you've read so many books, want to know what each one is about, want to stop unloading and start hearing the stories each book contains, want to find the books they can read themselves. Soon, they bring every book to you and ask, "this one? Have you read this one?" Harry Potter and Hatchet, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time. One time not long ago, you might have thought these books weren't culturally appropriate for these kids, but seeing the way that they are delighted every time they come upon a book from your past, you can't help but spend 30 seconds or so spellbinding them with the wonders within. It's less than an hour before both you and they can't tolerate simply looking at the covers of books anymore, and you gather in a cluster and break open one of the Narnia books that they've picked out. They listen attentively, and at the end of the first chapter, they get up to go - the last two boys out pausing in the doorway to ask, "we can come back tomorrow?"

The library becomes a source of endless fascination and word about it spreads among all the children. Before the week is out, you can't walk from your house to the latrine without a child running up to you to ask if it's time to go in the library. Once that door opens, the children - girls as well as boys now - set to work unpacking boxes, stamping books, putting books into baskets and then onto shelves, and - of course - finding a few minutes here and there to read and look and wonder.

One Tuesday night is declared Story Night - in the afternoon the children working in the library select a handful of books that three members of staff will read to them, huddled in small groups throughout the church sanctuary. They pick out Frog and Toad Are Friends, A Disney Princess Adventure, and Goodnight Moon. At 8:00pm, the small petrol generator is fired up, and by 8:05pm 50 children are sitting in the church buzzing about which story they want to hear. Even the normally disinterested teenagers have made sure not to miss this night; in fact, as you read a chapter of Frog and Toad and encourage the older children to help you out by reading a paragraph or even a page, it seems like they might be enjoying the book even more than the kids who are just listening. Soon every child who is able wants a chance to read, and when they reach the end of a paragraph or a page they don't want to stop. At 8:30pm, the petrol runs out and the generator dies. Sitting in a suddenly darkened church, no one moves. By 8:31pm, flashlights come on and the reading continues until the books are finished.

And you can't know this for sure, but you like to imagine that the children fall asleep that night with images of princesses, frogs, toads, and moons running through their minds.

A library comes to life slowly, becoming a thing that lives in minds and imaginations before it becomes an organized collection housed on shelves. There are still boxes to unpack, and books to stamp, and bookcases to build and fill with stacks and stacks of books - but you have a library now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Cornerstone Library, Part 1

(if you haven't read this, you might want to before continuing - if for nothing else than an embarrassing confession from my adolescence)

500 pounds of books packed into 18 cardboard boxes packed onto a single pallet do not move easily or quickly from one continent to another. And naturally, as estimated arrival dates come and go over and over again with not a box in sight, anticipation increases and often blends together with frustration until it's hard to distinguish one from the other, despite knowing that the strange amalgamation of the two has reached its boiling point.

But a single email finally arrives, heralding the arrival of that single pallet with 18 boxes containing 500 pounds of books, and like a strange alchemical reaction the frustration melts away leaving only the anticipation still threatening to bubble over.

Soon you find yourself in a wood-paneled, gleaming metal office in the heart of the warehouse district of an overlarge, overcrowded, overtrafficked African city, where an overlarge woman sitting at a desk crowded with coffee cups and glass soda bottles accepts your customs taxes and sends you out through a wrought iron gate into an industrial wasteland that looks like something out of season 2 of The Wire - with shipping containers the size of railroad cars stacked ten high and monstrous vehicles with magnetized arms picking them up and moving them around like a giant sized carnival game.

Your small van dodges these behemoths and the various tractor-trailers who have come to take shipments much larger than a single pallet, and soon you are at the mouth of a vast warehouse handing another overlarge woman a receipt. She disappears into the cardboard, wood, and plastic labyrinth, and when you see her again she's leading a forklift that's carrying a single pallet that you are seeing for the first time, and you think to yourself, "so that's what 18 boxes with 500 pounds of books in them looks like."

There is no way that the pallet fits into a small van's cargo hold - not even with both rows of passenger seats folded down - so, with the help of the driver you cut through layers of thick plastic, and place each box into whatever crevice it will fit, counting them all to make sure that there are indeed 18 there. When finally the black plastic pallet lies bare, the overlarge woman asks if you'd like to take it with you, and is utterly unfazed when you decline. Maneuvering back through the maze of shipping containers and vehicular minotaurs, your driver finds his way back to the wrought iron gate and out into the perpetual traffic, and for the first time all those books are fully in your possession.

And there is excitement - but a qualified kind of excitement that keeps reminding you that you still have to transport those 18 boxes across 200 miles of paved road, another 80 miles of unpaved road, and across a national border where you may or may not have to pay any number of people an unspecified amount of money to finally bring these 500 pounds of books home. (As it turns out, you follow the best piece of advice you've received since moving to Africa - "smile, thank people a lot, and keep doing what you mean to do" - and end up paying nothing to anyone.)

But once those 18 boxes are unloaded and carried into the room that in that moment is transformed from "room with random stuff in it" to "library" your excitement is so uninhibited that you can't help but... spend the next 4 weeks sitting in various meetings, attending to the daily needs of myriad children, taking care of your sick wife, and becoming extremely sick yourself; you never even open a single box.