Assaulted by the Sun
Memoirs from South Sudan
I was having coffee with a friend when she asked the most remarkable question. “In one sentence,” she wondered, “what happened to you over there?”
My eyes immediately shot up to the ceiling and I proceeded to look around the coffee shop, at nothing in particular. My brain was straining to locate the sentence. I made sounds like, “Mmmm” and “Uhhh” until I finally conceded: “That’s a good question. I’m not sure how to answer it.”
She gave me permission to take all the time I needed, even if that meant years. I told her I would think about it and get back to her. It was one of those rare moments when you know, immediately, that something just happened to alter your life. Sure enough, after we hugged goodbye and carried on with our days, the question kept coming back to mind.
In one sentence, what happened to you over there?
I thought, if I can’t come up with the exact answer now, at least I can list some possibilities. I decided I would just start writing sentences, as many as it took, until the right one came along.
1. I was assaulted by the sun.
I arrived in South Sudan wearing blue jeans and a smile. It was October, and the sun was shining high in the sky. After reaching the bottom of the airplane stairs, I walked across the asphalt toward a small building. Four giant, yellow letters jutted out from the top of the building:
J U B A
which, if my rapidly increasing bodily temperature had not already, assured me I had reached my final destination. I smiled bravely as I became intimate with the heat.
Entering the airport building was not a relief. The number of bodies navigating such a small space without air-conditioning does not make for a good environment in which to cool off. I couldn’t be sure at that point, but after three years of living in South Sudan, averaging two flights per months, I could say without hesitation on my last flight out, that the Juba International Airport was the most uncomfortable, chaotic place I had ever encountered, and probably ever would.
I kept smiling.
I was elated to have finally arrived at my new destiny. As I stood in the immigration line, I looked to my right and saw a man holding a white sign with my name on it, in all capital letters. It was the first time that had ever happened, and I made sure to burn the image into my memory.
After some exchanges with the immigration officer, I got my passport stamped with its first JIA. I walked over to the man holding the sign and introduced myself. We collected my bags and walked back outside, into the blazing sun and heat, and loaded up the big, white Toyota Land Cruiser Trooper. We got inside, closed the doors, and after the man with the sign had started the engine, we manually rolled down the windows. No air-conditioning there, either.
Growing up in Bakersfield, California had prepared me for this, I thought. Surely, entire summer days spent playing all-star softball games had given me what I needed to take the Juba heat. With temperatures in the Fahrenheit one-hundreds, Bakersfield was a tough city to be a ball player in. Hydration is not an option when you are constantly sweating and losing electrolytes. Someone was always filling up the cooler with water, and ice.
I never once thought twice about where the water came from, or how clean it was.
I just drank it. It was either that, or suffer from heat stroke. That’s what all of our parents kept telling us: “Make sure you drink plenty of water so you don’t get heat stroke.”
Living in Juba was kind of like that.
Even though I never played all-star softball there, I was constantly sweating and losing electrolytes. In fact, sometimes I sweat the most while sitting down. Having joined an organization with a passion for simple living and solidarity, our small team opted for natural air-conditioning, as an Ethiopian friend once called it. Ours was the only office in the entire compound with doors and windows always open. With a roof overhead, our air-conditioning unit consisted of sufficient shade, and a breeze when one was available. During times when the compound generator was turned on, the squeaky fan would move the air around and create the illusion of relief.
I thought constantly about where the water came from.
I would regularly stare at the five clear-blue water jugs lined up against the wall. Again, someone was always filling up the water cooler. Only there was no ice this time. In its place: conscience.
On my better days, I drank conscientiousness with my water. On my worse days, guilt. On the softball field, when I would run into the dugout and quench my thirst, I didn’t wonder if someone around the corner was able to quench theirs. They were able to quench their thirst, and with clean water to boot.
In California, I was able to take this for granted. Even a homeless person can find clean water to drink. In Juba, the water cooler was a constant reminder that many of my neighbors were suffering.
The location of our office was partially to blame for my conscientiousness or guilt, depending on the day. We were on the second floor, at the very end of the corridor, with windows in each of the three walls where it made sense. Out one window was a view of our private compound. We could see across to the office buildings of our neighbors, and we could see the common area with a single plumeria tree, in the center.
The middle window afforded another, side view of the compound, and the other window looked out and down onto a neighboring community. I couldn’t quite tell what exactly was going on in that area for some time. All I could see clearly was a tiny, blue house made of cement-mud walls and a grass roof. There was no door. There were no windows. I never found out if anyone actually lived in that house, before it was demolished. Houses like that were regularly destroyed and cleared, in an attempt to free up space for other things.
I did observe people in the area, though, on different occasions. I once saw a woman sitting in a chair, slowly smoking a cigarette. Another time, I saw a child playing, so I smiled and waited to see if she would notice me. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming and crying and ran away toward an adult, a savior.
To her, at least, I wasn’t a savior.
I was a weird-looking light-skinned person with crazy hair. When the adult saw me there and figured out what had happened, she waved at me and giggled. I smiled and giggled, too, relieved.
Did they have clean water, I wondered?
As time went on, I realized that question applied to everyone, and the answer for the vast majority of people, was no. Even for us privileged expats needing to take care of ourselves lest we be rendered useless to anyone else: there were a few water-shortage scares.
Still, as I sat in my office chair with swamp-ass, I drank. I drank as much water as I needed and wanted. And I learned very quickly to offer anyone who visited the office a glass of water.
Living in the desert, without the luxury of air-conditioning, as it turned out, was nothing like playing softball for fun in the Bakersfield summer.
At one point, as I was preparing to fly into JIA from Tanzania, I asked a friend how hot it was in Juba. He sent me a Wikipedia link for spontaneous human combustion. After so long in Juba, you stop checking the weather. Most of the time, you may as well be living on the sun.
Once, in an effort to cope using humor, I made a list of all the different types of sweating I did:
trying to sleep-sweating
thinking about going outside-sweating
been clean for five minutes-sweating
walking for two minutes-sweating
driving with no ac-sweating
driving with ac-sweating
praying for rain-sweating
sitting in church-sweating
thinking I’m not sweating-sweating
resignation to sweating-sweating
and appreciation for the detoxification of sweating-sweating.
And during the “cool” season, when there is a bit of relief, you’re mostly too busy celebrating to care. You know you’ve properly acclimated when, after getting goosebumps and feeling cold you get so curious, you check the weather: