The Cowboy on the Horn
By Arthur Long
The day I met Bill Dent in Khartoum, he had redneck written all over him. From the pushed-back Stetson and burr-cut all the way down to his Tony Lama boots, he might have walked straight out of a Spaghetti Western or a Lubbock Klan meeting.
“Now what sorry gob of camel spit do we have here?” were his first words to me, in a drawl you could skewer and grill over mesquite. His huge bear-paw crushed my hand into a throbbing mangle, dismantling the witty repartee.
I try not to make snap judgments about people. Working for the United Nations tends to wear away some of your prejudices and to confirm others, but it does expose you to the whole warp and woof of humanity, barring no national, ethnic, or moral subdivisions thereof. Most people overcome the shock of rubbing up against so many alien life-forms by adopting an exaggerated politeness, which serves the double task of avoiding offense and impeding meaningful communication. That may be why UN resolutions take so many pages of “deeply concerned bys” and “well-mindful ofs” to get down to business and condemn some minor social problem like child trafficking or human slavery. So it was with more surprise than umbrage that I realized this mountain of denim whom I’d just met had likened me to dromedary saliva.
Maybe I was looking a bit disheveled. I had been called to the Sudan on temporary assignment from my comfortable office at the UN International Development Agency in Mozambique only the day before, by who knows what mysterious decision-maker in Geneva. In record time, UNIDA fixers had found me travelers checks and a ticket, and deposited me on a plane headed for Khartoum. After an all-nighter in the Procrustean chairs of Nairobi Airport, followed by a nasty encounter with a suspicious Sudanese immigration official clueless about my diplomatic passport, I was in no mood to be made sport of by some long-horned cracker who didn’t even wear a tie to the Ministry of Social Welfare. All I desired from life was a shave, shower and five hours’ undisturbed sleep.
I was then a lowly emergency worker, and had been for several years. The UN teems with people like me, minor cogs in the giant wheel of African misfortune. We swing across the Dark Continent to assess droughts, evaluate floods, and tabulate the losses after civil wars and tribal clashes. It’s not a bad way to earn a living, and I suppose one doesn’t survive in the world’s greatest bureaucracy without developing a bit of rapid rebound power. In another age we would have been Caesar’s archers; to the UN, we were interchangeable as laptops, cheap and portable.
The arrival of a Sudanese official rescued me from further injury. The Ministry apparatchik welcomed me to Khartoum, in that incomparably polite style for which the Sudan is renowned. I was guided to a chair, and a tiny cup of sweet, steaming tea was pressed into my still ginger right hand. As the official waxed effusive about UNIDA assistance at this difficult time for his country, I cast a sidelong glance at the Texan with whom I was to work. The man must have weighed in at well over 220 pounds, but you couldn’t call him fat; more like an act of nature. His face was tilted sideways in suppressed laughter at some comment from the Sudanese official. There was magnetism about Bill; his eyes fairly danced behind the baby-smooth grin.
By the time I refocused on my interlocutor, the fellow was clearly waiting for a response. I replayed the echo in my ears, something about unfavorable coverage by the international press. I coughed politely and offered some vintage diplomatic gibberish. “Yes, well, it is inevitable is it not, that in a country as large and complex as your own, unwarranted misconstruction of cultural differences can cause adverse reactions by those who are less informed and more inclined to oversimplification…”
The Sudan, as I had dutifully read on the plane, is too big to be merely one country. From the arid desert on the Egyptian border to the steamy jungles of Zaire, the Sudan covers more territory than Western Europe. The nomads who mine salt on camelback near El Obeid have as little in common with the Nilotic tribesmen of Equatoria Province as they do with the Patagonians. The north-south division of Arabic-speaking Moslems vs. Bantu language Christians and Animists had provoked a near constant state of warfare over the past five years. How could one possibly maintain unity among 25 million people scattered across an unthinkably huge terrain, with 90 miles of paved road in the entire country?
The gist of the meeting at the Ministry was that Khartoum had a demographic disaster on its hands. Due partly to the migration of Southerners north, a city designed to accommodate half a million persons now held ten times that population. Nothing new here. Most African capitals were in the same fix, as economic and political pressures pushed rural families to the big city. Ah, but these migrants were “foreigners” to Khartoum: different language, customs, religion. Several incidents of violence against them had already been registered, one cause of friction being the Southerners’ practice of brewing arak, a local liquor, anyplace they could set up a still. This constituted overt provocation in a country actively adopting Shariah.
The Government’s solution was simply to round up the interlopers and truck them out of town. The Minister was now taking heat from the international humanitarian organizations for relocating Southerners to more convenient sites some forty kilometers outside the capital. Quite understandable. Forced relocation raises everyone’s hackles. But why had I been called from my seaside Xanadu to sweat in this dry wasteland?
A few hours later, I got a more thorough briefing plus some advice from Bill Dent, over a few cups of tea in the open stalls of the souk. “The way I see it, pal, you have yourself a small technical task on top of a large moral dilemma. You can certify the new camps unfit for human habitation, write up your report and be back on a plane to the beach with a clear conscience in a few days. But that won’t stop this pack of rascals from dumping the displaced in some new sinkhole forty clicks the other direction.” He sipped his tea like a man savoring scotch. “Best damned hospitality in all of Africa, here. There’s a graciousness and warmth in the Sudanese soul you just don’t find in your average Homo sapiens. But when it comes to ethnic differences, they’re as racist as a Los Angeles cop. I have my own reasons for disliking these Ministry Pooh-Bahs, but even if they were all Mother Teresas in jellabiahs, I just can’t brook a lot of carpet-bagging northerners imposing their own brand of truth on simple southern folk. Best you come along with me this evening and hear what some of the international organizations have to say. It’s Thursday post meridian, and that means weekend in this neck of the woods, partner.”
Does he always talk this way, I wondered in awe? Is it intentional, to disarm city slickers like myself, or was he even aware that he came across like Slim Pickens on amphetamines?
When Bill stopped by my hotel later that afternoon, I was in only slightly better shape. Rest had eluded me, thanks to the heat and sounds of Khartoum outside my window. I had almost fallen into exhausted slumber when the Muezzin’s call to prayer, broadcast from a rooftop loudspeaker across the street, shattered my communion with Morpheus.
The cab dropped us at a sandy lot in New Town’s numbered streets, where high stucco walls studded with broken glass surrounded a pink two-story building ringed with balconies. A party was in progress–hard rock and soft drinks were the chief attractions–and I caught the unmistakable sound of international relief workers making small talk. The house belonged to an Irish non-profit organization ubiquitous in African catastrophes, famous for its rapid response to human suffering and for its killer parties.
Bill stalked a trio of Irish nurses, and I wandered unobtrusively among the crowd. “Not mefloquine? But good heavens, not mefloquine?” came the dramatic exclamation from a Belgian World Banker. “But you know the Double-you Ash Oh has withdrawn mefloquine from its protocols. The side effects are trés horrible: depression, hallucinations, schizophrenia…” She trilled on convincingly about malaria medication and chloroquine resistance.
Why is it that illness exerts such a fascination at these gatherings? Expatriates in Africa adore comparing symptoms and medications, a bit like insider traders discussing defense attorneys. I avoided the medical conference and wandered upstairs, relieved at the lack of familiar faces. The disaster circuit is so in-bred that it is unusual not to run into colleagues in a new country. “Remember the Dhaka flood of ‘85?” goes the typical opener. To which the standard response is, “That was nothing. You should have seen the lower Shebelli a year later.” A few hours of this can be deadly.
Off in a corner, an irate voice complained about the drought in vivid Australian dialect. By the time my ear adjusted to the accent, I realized he was referring to the absence of beer in Khartoum. There was no liquor to be had in the capital for love or money, it seemed; not even the diplomatic pouch was safe from search, with fundamentalist fervor at a peak. “Cultural sensitivity über alles,” I muttered aloud.
“He is very justified in his frustration,” came the soft response at my shoulder. “Forbidding alcohol will not solve this country’s problems.”
The statuesque woman flashed me a ravishing smile. She looked to be in her twenties, with broad-features and tiny, precise scarifications on her cheeks. The thin-limbed build of a Southern Sudanese was perfectly accentuated by a green wrap of light Indian fabric, the kind you see all over the continent. This particular lunghi sported the smiling photo of Nelson Mandela at regular intervals, interspersed with the ANC logo, scoring her points for solidarity and stylishness.
I rose to the bait. “Nor will the bitching of one relief bureaucrat who misses his Fosters Lager. Maybe African nations should advertise their amenities to attract international aid workers: ‘Beset by civil war and drought but you’ll always find a Guinness stout…’ ”
“Perhaps,” she paused for a moment, and then recited like a naughty school child, “But malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.”
We both laughed. “Who are you and where did you learn to memorize literary doggerel?”
“My name is Harana. I was educated by Anglican missionaries in Juba, but Khartoum has been my home for the past ten years. You are obviously an American, and newly arrived in the Sudan.” When she smiled, dimples punctuated each cheek a few centimeters below the scars. I resisted the temptation to tweak them, but stared, smitten.
“Extraordinary, Holmes, how could you have deduced that?”
“Your accent is like…” (wrinkled nose) “…Hollywood, and I saw you make a scene at the airport this morning.”
It was my turn to smile, sheepishly, as my recollection of the encounter with the Immigration effendi washed back over me, replayed as it would look to a local bystander. Perhaps I had been a bit shrill with the fellow. “Look, Harana, I was not at my best this morning. Would you like a Coca Cola?”
“Let me offer you; I am hosting this party.”
I almost said, funny you don’t look Irish, but caught myself just in time. We settled onto a cement settee on the balcony and exchanged biographies. Isn’t it ironic how you summarize yourself for others in bold sentences, when the truth can only be dished out in hesitant spoonfuls of vulnerability? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to tell the next stranger you meet straight out: “Call me Arthur. I prefer nineteenth-century novels to people, my last girlfriend left me for another woman, and I am haunted by the specter of mediocrity…”
Of course, I didn’t say anything like that. Neither did she. Harana had joined Project Faith last year, after the authorities closed the University of Omdurman. She had completed three years of nutrition studies and spoke fluent Dinka, her mother tongue, as well as Arabic, English and French. The Irish had jumped at the chance to hire her for their therapeutic feeding program in the camps around Khartoum. She still had family in Juba, but hadn’t heard from them for months.
“Well, if alcohol prohibition is not the answer, Harana, what is the solution to this country’s problems?”
“Education,” she responded immediately, “and pride in our own culture. Remember Benjamin Disraeli’s words? ‘My ancestors were princes and scholars while yours were living in caves.’”
“I believe Disraeli was speaking of the ancient Hebrews,” I remarked dryly.
“Small difference. The Sudanese had a wondrous civilization once, when Europeans were still in the Dark Ages. The situation has changed now, but basic African traditions remain our chief asset. And yes, I do object to the mullahs’ forcing foreign practices onto traditional cultures.”
“Wait a moment, Harana. You can’t call Islam a foreign practice. What about the last millennium of history? The spread of the faith across the Maghreb from Somalia to Senegal?”
“Islam is African, yes, but Fundamentalism is not. Interests far removed from this continent support Dr. Turabi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are a political movement, not a religious one. South of the Bahr-el-Arab River, Arthur, very few people worry about middle-eastern geopolitics.”
“Oh ho,” I lowered my voice and interrogated with mock severity, “Does a separatist spark simmer in Khartoum?”
She smiled despite herself, but then grew serious. “That is not even an option. At least under Sadik el Mahdi the government left us alone. Ever since the coup, the Brotherhood has tried to dictate personal behavior to people thousands of miles away, who speak different languages, worship different gods and are happy living their own lives.”
“I guess the problem comes when they move in next-door…”
Harana reacted instantly. “The Dinka don’t want to live here any more than the Northerners want them to. It is the war that has forced them to the capital or to Uganda. If this government would stop waging war on the South, there would be no support for John Garang and his thugs. And no need for all the camps around Khartoum…”
Background conversation died suddenly and all gathered to stare at the horizon. We could see the sandstorm descending first, then hear it, like an approaching wolf pack. Seconds later, the sky was whipped by the Furies and a cold wind pelted our faces with minute particles of sand. The music stopped abruptly, as our hosts disconnected the stereo in preparation for the inevitable power-out.
“Haboob,” declared Harana by way of explanation, making no effort to go indoors. Her body arched into the wind, faced raised toward the heavens; she seemed to be enjoying the buffeting. “The plains cool down faster than the town around dusk. It is somewhat out of season, but nature has been acting strangely of late. ‘On Tuesday last a falcon was by a mousing owl hawk’d and kill’d,’” she quoted almost faultlessly, adding, “Don’t fight the wind, let it pass through you.”
No more than two meters from Harana, I could barely discern her now. The rush of air was exhilarating. Dragging myself to the balcony’s edge, I gripped the wall with both hands. From off to the left came a hearty chuckle. “Better than a twister in the Panhandle.” Through the oncoming grit, I could just make out Bill’s large bulk, sheltering a petite redhead, the Director of Project Faith. Bill’s voice boomed again. “What a country, eh, Marie? You’ve just got to love a place where even the evening falls with an elemental struggle…”
In a few minutes it was over, the wind and noise replaced by the sultry calm of African night. Candles appeared throughout the house, and someone cranked up the volume on a portable radio, broadcasting Egyptian music in a modal wail. The haboob broke the ice, leaving in its wake the manic joviality of survivors. Harana had disappeared. Bill and his Marie were already on the dance floor, doing something between a Texas two-step and a mock belly dance.
Exhausted, I headed for the stairs. Then a strident voice from behind brought back wincing memories. “Well, now, if it isn’t the original Lord of Poverty himself! But tell me, is it Art?” It was Dhaka, ‘85. I waved vaguely and slipped out into the night in search of a taxi.
* * *
The view from Carton Kassala was one of unadulterated bleakness. Two hectares of slums erected around a garbage dump housed twenty-five hundred families of displaced Southerners. I did the arithmetic slowly in my head: assuming an average family of six, that put 15,000 persons on 20,000 square meters of land. That was impossible. This really was Bangladesh! The heat was overwhelming, even at 7:30 in the morning, and the flies seemed to have been bred for size and ferocity. A smell of burning refuse assailed the senses. I couldn’t imagine how any campsite selected by the government could be worse.
Bill steered us toward one cardboard lean-to, from which a hoarse coughing filtered. “Acute respiratory infections: the bane of a refugee’s existence. Even a perfectly fit man will get sick with the dust, smoke and exposure. Imagine how long women and children last, debilitated from the journey north…”
I had already re-evaluated my initial impression of Bill. There seemed to be no area of human endeavor he had not tried his hand at, from plumbing to public health, by way of civil engineering and electronic circuitry. His command of emergency lore was immense; he dropped nuggets of wisdom like a boy flinging stones across the Texan prairie. Bill turned to our translator from UNIDA, “Could you see if anyone inside minds talking to a couple of Hawadjas?”
The fellow stared at Bill in astonishment but did his bidding. He emerged with a gaunt young woman, year-old infant asleep in a sash around her torso. Bill got the Dinka woman’s story in a few minutes, asking the most personal questions with a sympathetic interest that bore no trace of the voyeur.
The woman and her three youngest children had fled their home village months earlier, after soldiers took her husband and the eldest boy as recruits. Her brother had been shot the same day by a group of rebels for collaborating with the army. She left on foot that night. Problems started even before the food ran out. The water was bad, and the three-year old fell sick with diarrhea. He began to pass blood, then to vomit, and died within hours. A large party of Dinka heading north found her, with six-year old daughter and the youngest, and allowed them to trek along together. She wanted to take the little body with her, but they wouldn’t let her. Sharing food and water, they reached Aweil and kept moving.
Then the marauders came. It was almost dawn when they heard the hoof beats. There was no time to flee, even were there any hope of finding cover in the immense, empty plains. The horsemen carried few guns, but resistance was useless. One man who tried to run was simply ridden down. The Dinkas handed over their young; it was a quick transaction. This woman was able to hide the sleeping infant underneath her shawl, and no one revealed the ruse. The men took their food.
“Who were the bandits?” I interrupted, to ask of the translator. “Baggara” came the response. Bill leaned over and explained, “That’s the generic name they give to tribes out west. Ornery varmints.”
The group began to fragment, a few stragglers dropping behind each day. There were no trees, no streams, no signs of life. By the time they arrived at the community of Muglad, less than ten Dinkas remained alive. The authorities refused to let them enter the town, but escorted them to the east, where hundreds of Southerners had encamped on the road to Khartoum. A rudimentary feeding center had been set up, but many died after reaching at the camp. It took her three more weeks to make the capital, following the track of bloated bodies on the roadside.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle that this little one is still alive,” commented Bill, gently examining her child. “That discolored hair is a sure indicator of malnutrition; the puffiness on those limbs means Kwashiorkor.” He slipped a tape measure around the tiny upper arm. “He needs a lot more than a bowl of sorghum meal a day. Can you tell her that her son should be staying at the feeding center? She probably doesn’t want to leave him, but without intensive care he won’t make it.”
We walked on through the ravaged human landscape. For an area so densely populated it was deathly quiet. An old man in rags stared with blank expression, the skin on his rib cage nearly translucent. A family of ten lay prone in a large tukel, flies clustered on their eyes. Naked children squatted with bellies so distended one could not see their sex. It was impossible not to look, yet I felt intensely ashamed at bearing witness, at my own glowing health. I had seen refugees before but this was ghastly.
As I had hoped, Harana was at the feeding center, assisting with food preparation here, comforting a crying child there. Her combination of professional competence and human warmth was a fine thing to behold. Bill asked a few questions–the mixture of cereals used, number of deaths per day, presence of contagious diseases–while I examined the emergency medical stores.
Harana had little time to spare us, and we continued on, almost colliding with a water vendor who led his donkey on a rope halter. Bill inquired the price and made a small note in his pocket pad. “Don’t it just gladden your heart to see the spirit of free enterprise thriving in the middle of this Hell-hole? There ain’t much we can teach the Africans about small business development, now is there?”
I was still in the grips of the horror around us. “Is it this bad throughout the country?”
“More or less. The Red Sea Province showed some greenery last fortnight, according to satellite-imagery. But it’s dry all over.”
“So the famine hits everyone, north and south…”
“’Cept for the men with guns. They never go hungry for very long. Say, now, you’re looking a mite undernourished yourself. Could our boy be in love…?”
I had indeed taken to Harana in a big way. Any girl who could cite Shakespeare in a sandstorm and attach a naso-gastric tube to a malnourished infant was all right by me. I made a point of stopping by her post daily, as part of my field visits to the camps. We discussed Hawthorne, Dickens, Hardy; I lent her novels. (I always travel with books; it is a habit one develops in the field.) The more I saw her, the more giddy and daring I felt.
One night she joined me for dinner at the Al-Madina café facing the Nile, the last restaurant to defy the moral curfew. We talked of my mission, my worries that it had become far too political. How might one protect the displaced without granting them preferential treatment, which would draw the wrath of Khartoum’s long-time residents?
“Nobody provides for the urban poor, Arthur. This is sub-Saharan Africa, not Europe or America. I hope you can see that genocide poses a far greater danger than overcrowding in Khartoum…”
I took her hand across the table. “How incredible that we can sit here, comfortably dining al fresco, while unspeakable things are done in the name of national unity.” Harana did not withdraw her hand, but smiled ironically, “’It was the best of times and the worst of times…’”
I lifted my lemonade to toast and finished the novel, “’Tis a far, far better thing we do…”
* * *
From the moment Bill and I were ushered into the air-conditioned office of Corbin Ford, we breathed in the rarified atmosphere of an Ivy-League lecture hall. A cultural anthropologist from Yale, Dr. Ford had done fieldwork in Southern Egypt a few decades back and hadn’t returned to Africa since. Two years ago, he abruptly traded in Academia to run the lead UN agency in the Sudan. Perhaps he chose an extended sabbatical to test out some social science paradigm in the crucible of human agony. But you could hardly say he had ever left New Haven. The man was a classic. He clasped his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling while pontificating; his eyes closed even before he reached the middle of a sentence. You expected him to announce that additional discussion sections would be held on Wednesdays. I remember only snatches of Dr. Ford’s learned pronouncements, delivered as from a podium:
“Every sovereign state has the right to improve its urban communities. And the UN is comprised of sovereign states, we must not lose sight of that. Our mission is to support the government efforts to reintegrate displaced persons in the best way that we can.”
“From a Western perspective, we may not be in favor of certain cultural stances taken by this government, but we must defend their legal right to take them. What is law but cultural mores codified? And the Sudan is, after all, an Islamic country…”
“Slavery is a relative concept. A complex cultural symbiosis exists between the Dinka and the Baggara, particularly in Western Sudan. It might be more accurate to describe their relationship as one of apprenticeship or indentured servitude. This is a phenomenon that finds precedent even in the Bible.”
Bill was staring over Dr. Ford’s shoulder at several framed diplomas decorating the wall, beneath the obligatory photos of the UN Secretary General and the Executive Director of UNIDA. I wondered if he were trying to read the fine print. “Say, that’s some mighty fine reasoning,” Bill drawled disingenuously, “and I guess Pol Pot just wanted to improve the agricultural output of Cambodia, too. Welcome to the 20th Century, Doc.” Then to me, “What say we change a few shekels and check out the souk for some Nubian ‘apprentices’?”
The afternoon sunshine prompted an involuntary shiver, reminding me how frigid was the office we had just vacated. Bill shook his head in disbelief. “That critter hits more false notes than the Vienna Boys Choir singing “Ain’t Gonna Sleep in the Wet Spot no More.’”
A cloud passed before the sun, moving too quickly. I looked up sharply. Not another haboob? A whirring shadow descended over both ends of the street. My instinct shouted run for cover, and I nearly bolted.
“Cool your jets, Art, they ain’t going to eat you.” Bill cupped his palms to capture a single locust from the swarm that now engulfed us. I could distinguish countless tiny winged creatures, each no bigger than a small finger, interrupting their flight to alight on any stationary object. Wings stilled for a moment but jaws working steadily, they looked voracious behind those beady little eyes. Bill’s faded work shirt had turned into a shimmering suit of green armor under the weight of hundreds of insects. Backlit by the sun, he looked for an instant like some fantastic medieval Crusader, detoured south to Khartoum.
“Ford is right about one thing, Bill: this place is positively biblical. Drought, famine, locusts…what new evil will a vengeful Yahweh bring down on the Sudan?”
“Only Allah knows if a curse be not a blessing, pal,” corrected Bill. “At least this horde may provide a free source of protein to the displaced. Fry ‘em up in a bit of oil, or just munch on them au naturel. You might try one yourself, pal. You’re still looking a tad underfed…”
The flood began the very next day. Heavy precipitation had fallen in the Ethiopian highlands for several weeks already, and the Blue Nile was ominously swollen. The White Nile always looked like a maelstrom, even before it joined its sister in the center of town. Wrapped up in site visits and my literary courtship of Harana, I had been blissfully oblivious to what most concerned the denizens of Khartoum: the river was rising steadily.
Floods do not always occur in a flash, as televised images of Colombian highland villages would have you believe. Sometimes one hardly notices the slow encroachment of water onto dry land. Two topographers hired by the British embassy made the rounds and discovered that no more than a meter separated the highest from the lowest elevation across all of Khartoum. Most spots on earth will absorb excess liquid quickly, through gravity and seepage. In a flat plain, however, baked rock-hard by centuries of drought, there is simply no place for the water to drain.
By mid-July, Khartoum had become a lake. Children were diving and swimming in the streets. Hundreds of cars were abandoned. Sudan Airlines cancelled all flights in and out of the capital, its underground fuel storage tanks covered by a meter of water. Within the space of a few weeks, the ancient dust of Khartoum disappeared under the muck of the Nile. Most of the displaced people’s camps were located fairly far from the center of town, an unexpected boon to the Southerners. The water played havoc with their makeshift tukels, but at least they had time to avoid the flood waves rolling out from the riverbanks. Volunteer groups set up medical attention centers to treat and monitor cholera cases.
Banks, shops and schools closed. The gold market and the moneychangers’ plaza were literally washed out. The Ministry of Social Welfare was waterlogged. UNIDA’s upstairs library turned into an operations-room for the international relief effort. Each morning at 8:30 and afternoon at 16:00 hours, embassies, relief agencies, government ministries and the press, met to share data on Khartoum’s worst flood in living memory.
Most people who were there recall July 28, 1988 as the day the flood relief flights began. I remember it as my last in Khartoum. The debriefing at the Ministry of Social Welfare, its perimeter now secured with sandbags, went as well as could be hoped under the circumstances. Following Bill’s advice, my final report showed that relocation to the planned camps was technically unfeasible. As it turned out, the Minister and his deputy were both too busy doing damage control to receive my analysis. I was passed along to a minor official in urban planning, eager to be rid of me. There was the requisite drinking of tea and polite expressions of thanks, and I was out in ten minutes.
It was too late in the afternoon to catch the four o’clock flood meeting, but that was just as well. I had little desire to face yet another round of Byzantine battles between relief agencies disputing the credit for minimal achievements. Almost without noticing, I had begun to view the international civil service from a distance, as though someone had turned the binoculars around for me. This was Bill’s doing, I realized with rueful smile. Normally a staunch booster of the UN system, I had been transformed under his casual tutelage into a cynical subversive, a mole in the bureaucratic woodwork.
The water had already begun to recede in certain parts of downtown, and one could walk to UNIDA now without a pair of waders. Strolling the muddy boulevard, I sensed just how beautiful Khartoum was, or rather, how sadly its former grandeur had faded. The once proud palm trees that lined each side of the road were decapitated, the mosaic sidewalk cracked. Derelict stalls and boarded-up windows abounded. Urban decay had seized the capital, and it mattered not a whit who ran the government.
The UNIDA library looked deserted. I paused at the door for no reason, and then froze. The sound of giggling and the clink of glasses were unmistakable. The two of them were huddled together in what could only be described as an intimately conspiratorial pose, Harana seated on Bill’s lap with an arm around his neck. What surprised me most was the bottle of Irish whiskey on the table before them. Where on earth had they gotten it? I beat a hasty, if not completely dignified, retreat. It was a long trip back to Maputo, and I spent most of it rereading Paradise Lost.
* * *
I ran across Bill twice more after that. A year later, I happened to be up in northern Somalia, on a short flight from Berbera to Hargeisa, part of a milk run for the refugee crowd. I was seated in the tail of a Twin Otter, immersed in George Eliot, while he rode shotgun in the co-pilot seat. At the first lurch of the plane, the Kenyan pilot panicked. The small aircraft gave a series of fits, as though an enormous weight were hanging from one wing. You could hear the other passengers making their final peace with the world in the silence that reigned inside that small cabin. Bill placed one calming hand on the fellow’s shoulder and reached up with the other to switch off the bad engine. Then he spoke loud enough for the entire plane to hear, “There, now, pal, I suppose we can coast into Hargeisa on one motor, don’t you?” And we did.
The last time I saw him was five years ago in Geneva, when UNIDA asked me to prepare a briefing on the Horn of Africa. Dressed in three-piece suit, I followed a young minder down the carpeted corridors of development, silently rehearsing my presentation. Passing an open door, I caught sight of a familiar frame in jeans and boots, and overheard that sardonic twang: “You can parachute an entire army of agronomists into the Ogaden and there’ll still be refugees spilling across the border. Desertification ain’t the problem, fellas. So help me, I think you’d build deck chairs on the Titanic if y’all had funding for it…” I wanted to stay and hear more, but my guide was making impatient noises at my side.
Bill has been missing for nearly two years now, off in the Caucasus somewhere, but it is hard for me to believe that the man is really gone. I like to imagine that he has simply dropped out of sight temporarily to hold a few barbecues with his Dinka pals down south of Juba. It might just be true; besides, that is almost as believable as the other tall tales spun about him by disaster junkies and emergency wonks around the world. Just the other day, one UN official started to tell me how Bill had repaired the central water main of Sarajevo in ‘94, providing some small quantum of public health and comfort in that doomed town. “Oh sure,” I countered casually, “but you should have seen him at work in Khartoum, in ‘88. He turned that drought around in no time.”