Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making Friends.

Kids in Tonj, before taking off. I didn't take Ajon's picture.
Friday I woke up early to get everything ready for my flight. There was no risk of missing it, since I was one of only two passengers, but I was ready to go. Mentally ready. “Get me on that plane now!” kind of ready. Ready-ready!

I’m not sure if it’s been the heat, the fatigue, or just a deep desire to get a bit of perspective, but I knew the only way that’d happen...  was hopping on that plane.

I was ready. 

The small 4-seater looked solid enough; nevertheless, I watched in satisfaction as the pilot meticulously checked every latch and flap. If we were going up, we needed to stay up. Right?

Our first stop was Akot, a small village in Southern Sudan, for fuel. This required someone driving up from the local hospital to unlock the container where dozens of barrel drums baked in the heat. Next, one of the Texaco-stamped drums was tipped on its side with a clank, then pushed out the door.  Mud and dirt collected, as it was rolled over to the plane.

By now a dozen or so locals gathered to watch the ‘action’. What they could find of interest still bewilders me, since this must be a regular sight by now. But without fail, they come to greet us and watch the show. We are unwitting actors in some WAY off-Broadway production piece.

One of the crowd happened to be a little girl wearing a gauzlin cloth around her waist as a skirt and a well-worn, pink top. She was beautiful. Discrete dimples framed her smile, catching my eye every time I looked her way.

She was the older sister (I think) to the chocolate waif with the bloated belly. He, too, had the familial dimples, but one was masked by a large sore on his cheek. He watched intently as we hand-pumped the sea-green liquid, first in one wing and then in the other.

Tan, plastic, sandals on his feet, and a strand of sturdy beads about his neck and ankle, served to accent his chocolate-covered nakedness all the more.

As we smiled at one another, a flash of bright, wet, pink poked out of his mouth every few seconds to play with the sore on his cheek. In stark contrast to the solid, chocolate-colored canvas of his face, it mesmerized me. I found myself counting the times it poked out, studying the sore.

This imp was all boy. Adorable.

Older ones gathered, as well, to practice their English with the Kowaja. They were happy to hear me mutter my Dinka phrases, and laughed at my thick accent.

At one point, I turned to find my dimpled shadow standing to my right. She had to crank her neck to look up into my face, but she didn’t seem to mind.

What she saw I can only imagine.
    -- A pale, flightless, bird with hair instead of feathers and a funny accented song.

I’m so accustom to their barefoot, beaded ways, I forget I’m the exotic bird -- not them!

As we stood staring at one another’s plumage, the girl at my side again smiled. I decided to test out the ways I see others make friends on her; I took her hand.

Uncomfortable at first, as it made a scene, she stood awkwardly, not sure what to do. Why was the Kowaja holding her hand? As understanding dawned, she relaxed.

Only friends -- good friends at that-- hold hands. I was basically telling her that I wanted to be friends.

A few minutes later, I was needed elsewhere so I dropped her hand, thinking nothing of it. But, my dimpled shadow followed me.

Squaring her shoulders and looking at me straight on, she told me in no uncertain terms she had something to say. (This is the Dinka way of addressing a person respectfully.) The protocol is to wait until acknowledged, however long that might be.

Once I recognized she was addressing me, I nodded for her to speak, and even bent in half to hear her better.

Smiling, she whispered in Dinka: “Jabber Jabber Jabber Friend. Jabber Jabber.” (Okay my Dinka needs lots of help!) Even though, I didn’t understand the sentence, I totally understood the intent. She was asking me to be her friend.

My heart melted as I took her hand in mine to do the extensive ‘Friend Greeting’ which requires repeating ad infinitim the words ‘Friend. Friend. Friend. Friend....” while repetitiously shaking hands. The longer you do this, the closer you are.

After greeting my new friend, we had a little conversation. It went like this...
-- Call yourself what? (aka: What’s your name?)
-- Me call Ajon. (aka: My name is Ajon.)
-- How did you rise, Ajon? Me call Akuac. (Good morning, Ajon. My name is Black & White spotted cow with even horns.)
-- Age how many? (aka: How old are you?)
-- Ten.

As we talked I couldn’t help but smile. It’s been AGES since someone asked to be my friend. I think the last time was when I was ten!

Why don’t we do that anymore? Why can’t we go up to strangers or semi-strangers and ask, “Jabber Jabber Friend?”

I miss those days.

A few minutes later, I had to board the plane and wave goodbye to my new friend. She watched us start the engines, and even bounced a bit in excitement when we taxied down the dirt runway. Waving goodbye was sweet. I wonder if I’ll see her again....

The rest of the flight and connections went without incident.

I wish everyday I could meet a friend like Ajon. I wish we all could be ten again, and make friends while fueling our planes...

Will you be my friend?