Destructing Customs

September 18, 2008

There’s a corner where Yei road enters Juba past Jebel Kajur Mountain that is the busiest spot in town.  Corrugated metal shacks full of wares like imported beers, and liquor, baskets and plumbing goods, lumber, stereos and cell phone and airtime often adorned the displays at a single door.  Old women walked out in from of careening mutatu buses and young boys on shiny chinese motorcycles still sporting the protective shipping plastic wait to take people somewhere for a few pounds. This was the scene there until a few weeks ago.  Customs Market, the center of town and Juba’s equivalent of a shopping mall is now rubble.

The government decided it wanted the land for its ministries and parilaments so the whole market was torn down to accommodate the swelling administration of the nation.

~  

It’s the holidays that really make you remember family and nostalgia when living abroad.  

I always knew the US was special.  I remember when my dad told me a bit about his experiences moving across the Atlantic in 1976:

“For the first time in my life, I had money left at the end of the month.”

My move abroad is the first time I’ve realized that feeling.  It’s been good, believe me.  For all the benefits of living abroad,  I’ve loved America more since I’ve been away.  

But to me, the Fourth of July has always been more about fireworks and hamburgers than patriotism, old white guys and a piece of parchment in Philadelphia hundreds of years ago. 

Last year, I flew back from Istanbul via Dubai on the 4th.  The year before that I celebrated with my girlfriend in Vegas but small time, with sandwiches and naps.  The year before that I experienced the 4th in DC with an IT professional whose idea of a good time was flying a kite.  

Seriously.  He kept one in his pocket and went off by himself and flew a kite while the fireworks were going off.  Before that, in ’04 was the last fourth with the fam, down at the Outer Banks in NC, with the extended American ‘family.’

This year, the construction team had just gone on strike for being served eggplant.  I’m not gonna lie. I think eggplant is revolting.  It’s like cross between a potato and a mushroom.  But I wouldn’t put my job in jeopardy over it.  

So I cut off their meals.  My chef works his ass off to make sure the staff has a nutritious meal without surging food cost, and I had it with their shenanigans.  So no work?  No food.  

Not like they got a teamsters union over here. . .

El Berkerino arrived a week before and we had to visit our neighboring camp too look for the proprietor, for a number of undisclosed reasons.  He wasn’t around, but we did run into Mumkuru.

Mumkuru is one of those people that you can’t believe exist.  He’s an Indian Kenyan, drinks like a hobo and smokes like a steam engine and is always ready for a laugh.

Berk and I weren’t expecting to have a drink until after sunset on the fourth, but 4 Tusker’s later I departed to catch up on paperwork.  

Few people were around for dinner, as just about every expatriate in Juba was attending at a camp owned by Kenyans, filled with Ugandan employees, in Southern Sudan.  Their menu of pork, turkey, and sausages did not come close to the authenticity of my ‘Fourth on the fifth’ party.  

You may have seen the flyer on facebook.  

It was strange being somewhere so foreign for something so familiar.  Berk and I dropped by for a little bit to hand out some flyers for our event the next day.  

I left early, as I was close to where the girl was working, so I figured I’d pop in to see her.

When I heard shouting.   I stood up and listened closer.  

It was Berk.  

There was trouble.  

El Berkerino don’t yell. 

I looked over at The Girl and she was sound asleep.  

I looked around for Lassie, but she wasn’t there to tell me anything about the situation at the old mill.

Before I could think rationally, I threw on a towel and was out the zippered ‘door’ of the tent, running barefoot to the scene.  

Expecting the worse, a robbery, a mugging, Berk attempting to bring a Sudanese girl to the tent, I saw something that I could never have conceived in an LSD induced haze.

There, in the light of bright lamp swathed in fluttering moths, was Berk, held by four or five of our own guards.

Standing in front of him was our own Assistant Security Supervisor, hereforth, the A.S.S.  

“Fuck this.  I’m outta here,” said the InMo.

“What. . .is. . .going. . .on. . .here,” I said aloud.

“This man, he is abusing and cursing at my guards. It is not your business” said the A.S.S.

“It is indeed my business! You’d better have a good reason for forcibly detaining the longest tenured manager in the field!  Please explain how he was abusing your guards,”  I bellowed.

“He cursed at them,” exclaimed the A.S.S.

“That was the last thing you said, not the first. I’d be cursing at them if I were held by four of them for nothing.” My full confidence in Berk’s righteousness did indeed cloud my judgement, but I had encountered the A.S.S. before, and I knew he liked the last two initials of his title. 

“This is absurd!  I’ve done nothing wrong!” cried an exasperated Berk.  “We’ve worked together for two years, and I’ve never made any disruptions like you’re claiming!  I’m just getting the key to my tent!  Just let me go, and I’ll leave,” Berk pleaded.

“Release this man immediately,” I stared into the guard’s souls.  

“Do not release him,” countered the A.S.S emphatically.

They hesitated in confusion.  

“Get the fuck off me!!” Berk was able to break away an moved towards the outside gate.  The A.S.S commanded his men in Arabic, to retrieve Berk and before I knew what was going on they’d caught up to him, brought him back, struggling, to the A.S.S and me.  

They promptly threw him to the ground.

“I work hard to train my guards, and has been drinking and comes here and disrespects us all!” the A.S.S yelled to everyone present.  

“I was getting the key to my tent,” exhaled an exasperated Berk.  

“Train them?  Your guards behaviour at this very moment shows you have not trained them about respect!

“He is fucking drunk!  What are you fucking doing here?  Why is this your business, Buckshot?” he moved towards me shaking a finger at me like he was scolding a four-year-old.

“A.S.S.” I tried to maintain my composure, and corrected him that I was not Buckshot. “This has gone far enough.  He is a senior manager, you cannot treat him like this.”

“This is my staff! I will arrest you too!”  He bellowed.

I got a little squeamish about the prospect of going jail naked, let alone a sudanese jail  The A.S.S. motioned for an onlooking guard to shut the gate going back into the living area.  

I moved towards the gate but the guard stuck his hand out.  I was furious.  I looked at him and turned around and looked at the guards holding Berk.  People get arrested here just for being involved in a physical incident, let alone ‘starting’ one, so I refrained from getting to close to the nervous man blocking the way back home.     

The thought of jail was about the only thing stopping me from going Beowulf on the fuckers.  

Thinking I would be able to save my friend and colleague, I wound up getting involved with internal affairs.  My mind raced for a solution.  The A.S.S was accusing Berk of being drunk and was angry at me for usurping his authority.  But he had referred to me as Buckshot, a few times that night.  It clicked.  He knows my name.  Hell, he’s got 300 guards and he’s known me for a year and a half.  

“A.S.S.”  I inquired, “where have you been tonight.  Have you been drinking?” 

The A.S.S. stood very close to me, and his odor filled my nostrils.  It was like chicken soup and chopped onion in vinegar. 

“Let them go,” he snorted.  “I have no time for this now.  We will sort it out in the morning.”

The guards let Berk go and we turned to go in the gate.  As I turned around, one of the guards standing there, started tsking.  

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” the sound practically echoed in open space, as if the sound created visible ripples in the cool air of the dark night.  

Acid coursed my veins and my fists clenched. 

Luckily my towel was still secure.  

I should’ve just walked away, but it was that whole straw and camel thing.  Throughout this entire ridiculous debacle I kept my cool, but this moron clicking his tongue in self-righteous perspicacity sent me over the edge.

“Who did that?”  Every set of eyes in the line of guards dropped to the ground and every pair of feet shuffled uneasily.

“You will address me, not my guards,” snarled the A.S.S with vitriolic indignation. 

“You train your guards?  You say you train you guards and you gripe about respect,” I practically spat the words out through my teeth.  “Your job, your guards jobs, is not to pass judgement.  We will indeed work this out in the morning, A.S.S.”

The A.S.S. sent out an email with his version of the story

Among other things, he forgot to mention I was barefoot. He was probably so taken aback by rippling physique.  

On a day where my family and friends were thousands of miles away celebrating the birth on a nation founded on the notion that all men are created equal and that we have certain unalienable rights, two Americans were held against their will and nearly arrested because some toolbox didn’t like what was said to him.  

Up in my office at the Rock, making sure the ACs in my 30 rooms are working, that the showers don’t shock anybody, and teaching my sudanese cooks the subtleties of proper chicken fingers, hummus, and mozzarella sticks, I guess it’s a bit of an American enclave.  It’s quite easy to forget where one is. 

Luckily, freedom prevailed.  I’m still here, and I’m back to wearing clothes and working my day job.  

As much as Southern Sudan has progressed, the A.S.S. could still have put me in jail for just standing up to him in defense of a friend and colleague. Yeah, America’s not without its problems, but when your store is gonna get torn down for a new highway, you get paid.  There’s the whole theatre/fire thing, but it’s pretty difficult to get arrested for just saying something.

 ~

Five days later, my boss showed up.  To be honest, I was a little worried.  My boss, here in Juba, after a mess like this? Traveling internationally?  One thing I’ve learned from working as an international contract dog, is that bosses only travel into the field for serious ordeals.  And this was a serious ordeal? 

We had a talk over lunch and ironed everything out.  The A.S.S was dealt with.  

The A.S.S had pulled some sneaky shite when I was running our flagship camp.  To be honest, I’d never had over 100 employees working under me.  That’s a daunting notion, having 126 people depending on you? 

Directors manage, what, 35 people in a regional office?  The restaurant in B-Town where I was a part time cook, had maybe 40 people including the chef and the dining room manager. I mean, I can look in my memory and see the kitchen layout and the number of people working.  Actually, I’d bet that fine restaurant had only one or two more people in their kitchen that I do in mine and they easily served 100 more meals per night.

Such is the nature of an experienced workforce.  

Regardless.  Find me a VP in any sub 1000 employee biz that directs that many people.  One hundred and twenty six. Yeah.  Please.  Leave a comment.  See, cause I’d totally believe you, but you wouldn’t have the time to get to this paragraph let alone stumble across this indifferent a website to really do it.  

So, the boss left after we had things sorted out

For the most part.  Until about 10 days later.

Buckshot came back to town after 5 months of screwing off in America. 

And the HR guy at out flagship was fired for his general incompetency

I was back at the flagship camp sorting out some postings via the VPN to Nairobi, and I got a call from The Girl:

“My employees are revolting.  Please come now.”

I walk to the office and housekeepers, security guards and casual labourers were gathered in front of the office yelling and pointing fingers.  

I set my laptop up on the hood of one of our trucks and did my remote access thing.  

I’d had employees angry at me before, gathered outside my door, and done the yelling and finger waving.

But this time they were making it personal.  The Regional Accountant and Security Manager, as well as some of our senior sudanese were up there with everyone, and people were crying out terrible things.

“You hate Sudanese!”

“You only like Kenyans!”

“We want you dead!”

“We hate everyone equally,” lamented an exasperated InMo.

No one was hired in his place.  There was not a replacement Ugandan or European waiting to fill his shoes.  The guy was fired for not doing his job.  

I worked my way inside the office and the SM and RA were discussing options with The Girl.  The gist of the strike was that the HR manager had been fired because he was Sudanese.  The actuality of the matter was that he was an incompetent buffoon, and was dealt with according to local labour law.  As the acting Manager, The Girl was now the brunt of the agression.

The SM and the RA were fearing for her safety, and wanted her to leave

“I’m not leaving,” she stated indignantly and confidently.  “Then they win.”   

But they kept pushing.  She looked to me in desperation, and I didn’t have an answer.  The group mentality is strong in all people; it’s why seeing a movie in the theatre is something special.   However, the group mentality in a society that still segregates itself along tribal lines is exceptionally strong.

The same people that had smiled at us and worked with us for so long were now out of control in a group.   That group was causing a scene and clients were leaving their office concerned.   We decided to get the hell out.  

A car pulled up and soldiers we employed to keep the peace lined from the door of the office to the door of the car.

I’m sure she was scared, but I’ve lost count of the number of death threats I’ve received since being over here. It’s all bark and no bite. As we walked between the rows of shirtsleeved soldiers and their worn russian weapons, the laundry ladies erupted in a “lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul-lul!”

“Holy crap, I wish I had my frickin’ camera!” bitched the InMo as I fumbled for my iPhone.   

As I drove off I saw the faces of Tex and Buckshot with solemn “what the fuck?” faces.  

We went straight back to the Rock.  With a DoS contractor on site and SPLA generals living there, I knew we’d be safe.  

I figured we’d let things cool down, so I made omelettes and hash browns.  No better way to relax than a good meal.  

I was amazed how strong she was through all this.  Mostly scorning the moron who incited the incident and wondering how the people she’d worked with for nearly a month could turn so quickly.

“It’s a chicken/egg thing,” I offered.  “is violence a solution because this nation has only known war, or has this nation known war since violence is the solution?”

Neither of us had answer.  

The hash browns were delicious.

She still didn’t feel safe, so we headed to the US consulate compound.

Upon arrival, the Consulate General and his staff were incredible and jumped into action immediately.

The employee who was fired had told the staff he would bring ministers to bring a suit against The Girl and that she would be extradited.  

As it turned out, he was a liar, and had only been able to round up some underlings who were brought to the site under other auspices and were in violation of their positions.  

We received calls from the RA and the SM that things were worked out and we could return.

Within an hour of our return we faced the same thing again.  The highest ranking soldier came into the office and wanted our permission to use force on the assembling mob.

Back to the Consulate.

It was only now that I saw what a toll this had taken on her.  It’s one thing for someone to be angry with decisions, but that’s what it takes to be a boss, making difficult decisions.  

But for someone to be blind to reason and partake in a mob in hearsay, was unfathomable to her, as it was to me.  I told her what she already knew, that it nothing she did, but the lies of one person and the gullibility of a number of poor and uneducated individuals caught up in the moment.

She had talked to the COO, and she was out on the first flight the following day.  

I am sure she was in no real danger.   These mobs are all bark and no bite.  I’ve encountered them before in Sudan and elsewhere and once disband, the individuals cannot muster the fortitude to stand up on their own.  We need the support of others in our causes, but a cause which at its heart is selfish, has no merit.  

The self righteousness of man led to his fall in Genesis, and it continues.  These employees thought they were so right in their actions and their belief of lies.  They thought they were doing the right thing and would win.  So did my construction workers with their revolt against eggplant.  

DAMN THE EGGPLANT!  DOWN WITH PURPLE VEGETABLES!!

Neither considered how far their actions would go.  When the construction team went on strike over a meal, they did not forsee that while they were on strike they would not receive meals.  When lunch time rolled around and their steming pots of Ugali and cabbage did not arrive, their attitude changed severely.  

Nor did Adam consider his. 

But the employees that revolted on the belief that their coworker was fired unjustly certainly did not consider the possibility that he was a liar.  Nor did they consider that the US consulate would be involved or that a report wold be filed back to Washington, or with USAID, which is the primary donor in the area and thus the primary reason for the economic influx in the area

The actions of a few will spread much farther than those yelling and screaming unfounded, incendiary, and slanderous claims. 

I don’t know if that report will be filed in a dusty cabinet for years to come, or if the fact that an angry mob threatened the life of an American citizen will be used when the DoS issues the next warning of travel to the area, or if an NGO rep will read it and hold off on a program that would infuse millions of dollars into the area.

The build up of one, this HR tool, led to the destruction of many.  But as is customary in a tribal world, the mob prevails in the short term, but who knows what the future holds.  

I truly don’t know what will come of it.  

This piece has been sitting in a file on my m4c for some time, and I’ve waited a while to post it.  I don’t know if it’s because of the nature of these events or that I’ve been so busy since, but I knew I had to document it, but I didn’t know when to post it. The events that transpired so close changed the perception of the place I was.  I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same.

It’s been months since I’ve been back.  I was up to Rumbek for a little, we had a weekend safari camping in the Mara with hyenas and buffalo singing us to sleep.  We’ve had house guests in and out of our place and had a wonderful time in Nairobi.  But Juba now has a looking cloud over it; not the actual dust cloud that really hangs over it, but a figurative one.  

I don’t know when I’ll be back.  

Thing that gets me is that I’ve always maintained that this was an avaricious venture, but she never has.  She actually wanted to help.

She actually wanted to change lives and all that crap I don’t believe in.  

Wanted.

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