Boy at cattle market in Juba
Tony Calderbank, Country Director of the British Council’s South Sudan office in Juba, writes about a morning of endless surprises at his post in the world’s newest country.
This could well be the smallest British Council office in the world. My colleagues are out of the office on work trips or leave, so for the last three days I have been alone, doing a kind of front office, back office fully-integrated functional solution.
Today I go in a bit early, hoping to get some things sorted. I switch on the laptop and look at my ‘to do’ list. I need to write bullet points to brief our CEO for a meeting in London; draft an English language proposal; arrange hotel booking and airport pick up for new teachers plus medical insurance and tax for local staff; work on a crisis management plan; and organise a contract and induction for the temp.
Hopefully this morning will be quiet. I’ll get my stuff done and then head down to Sistas’ café for lunch. Traditional South Sudanese: molokhia (a soup made from leafy greens) and pasted chicken. “Mmmmm!” I think.
As the emails start to download, someone walks in and asks for information on the IELTS exam. He has a scholarship to study in the Netherlands, and needs the qualification. As he writes down his details, a young woman, almost seven foot tall, opens the door and steps inside. She’s incredibly thin and incredibly beautiful, with skin the texture of burnished ebony.
The man and I both look for a moment before I say: “Good morning. Can I help you?”
“I lost my passport.” When she speaks, she sounds like she could be the Dinka in Eastenders. “Can you ‘elp me?”
“Ah, you need the British Embassy. This is the British Council.”
“What’s that then?”
“It’s a cultural relations organisation. I’m sorry, we don’t do passports. You need to go to the British Embassy on Kololo Road. They’ll sort you out.”
The East End supermodel and the hopeful scholar leave together. I walk over to the kettle. It boiled a few minutes ago and now the water has cooled down, so I switch it on again.
I make tea, sit down and unlock the screen saver. A dozen new emails have popped in. The door scrapes open. A young man walks over and sits down on the chair in front of my desk. He takes a DVD out of his bag and hands it to me. It’s a film. I notice the picture on one side of the disk: a young man in a black shirt talking on a mobile phone. It’s him. Behind him is a woman, her hair in long plaits looking sultrily over his shoulder. Above them are the names of the actors and the title of the film.
“Yes. We made this film. We need to release it. They said you can help.”
“Who said that?”
“The guys I spoke to. You are British Council?”
“Yes, but we don’t do film releases or distribution.”
The young man sighs and tells me his story: leaving the South as a child, a refugee camp in Kenya, doing a bit of film with an NGO, coming back, cobbling together the movie with volunteer film buffs, not two piasters to rub together.
“If I don’t get money,” he concludes, “I’ll try to get back in the university.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” I add. We exchange numbers and give one another missed calls to make sure the networks connect.
As he walks out, I can see new emails zipping in, their arrivals announced by the little pop up on the bottom right of the screen. “. . . by the end of today . . .” I glimpse.
“Is this British Council?”
“I’ve written a book. I want you to publish it. God spoke to me.”
My latest visitor hurries across the room. He is dressed in a dark suit and his shirt is buttoned to the top. Beads of sweat trickle down the side of his face as he hands me the book: My Role in the Peace Process. On the back is the reverend’s photo, and beneath the blurb the address of a Southern Baptist publishing house in North Carolina, where, he informs me, he lived for many years.
“See how He brought peace here, after the prophecies of Isaiah, the land of the smooth-skinned people across the river over the mountains from Ethiopia!” He stares at me. “Can you publish it?”
“We don’t do publishing. I think you should contact your friends in North Carolina.”
By this time it’s past 11 o’clock. I’ve been in the office almost three hours. I unlock the screensaver again and open the first email. I start to write out the bullet points to brief the CEO about the Sudanese delegation. At the fifth bullet I hit the enter key but in my haste my finger glances a neighbouring key, and this, coinciding with an incoming email, causes the computer to freeze. The cursor turns into an egg timer and stays there ominously too long. I press Control Alt Delete and the task manager informs me that outlook is not responding. Tenuous Juba connectivity. I shut down and start again.
Outside, the beer truck pulls up to the bar next door, unloading fresh supplies for tonight’s revellers and taking away the empties. The clink of the bottles mingles with the other reassuring sounds of the Juba office: chickens scratching about in the bushes, peals of ribald laughter from the cleaning ladies as one recounts a tale about some bloke she knows, a distant rumble of thunder presaging the afternoon rain.
The smell of nyama choma (roasted meat) drifts down the yard. I’m hungry. It’s been a busy morning, full of cultural relations activity. I lock the office door and then the iron gate that closes over it. As I walk past the bar, I spot the Vice-Chancellor of Dr John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology in Bor. He’s down in Juba, and has promised to pop in.
“Good morning Dr. It looks like it’s time for lunch. How do you fancy molokhiya and pasted chicken at Sistas’?”
“Sounds great!” he replies.