Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Man in Green.

Sudanese pipe commonly smoked in the region.
Last week, as the day of my departure approached, I felt an increasing pressure to find souvenirs for family and friends. For over a month, I had tried to purchase Sudanese spears for my nephew, but in true African style, it was always put off for another day.

As the end of my final week approached, I found myself transformed into a broken record --obnoxious even to myself. Nagging is not an effective means of producing results in any language, but I didn’t see any other choice. I wanted so much to have gifts to give.

Unfortunately, no one was able to produce the spears I so dearly desired. It seems that nothing is made in Sudan that isn’t used. Every time I offered a man money for his spears, he’d politely refuse by asking: “What will I hunt with if I sell them?” Sigh.
Raw tobacco.

However, in that short time, I was able to track down a few hand-carved pipes. (I have several friends that smoke, and thought they’d enjoy this unique treasure.) I was also able to obtain a few tobacco pots --gourds hollowed out with a cork as a lid-- to go with them.

Buying the tobacco, however, was a bit more complicated.

Maguak, one of our clinic guards, agreed to be my translator and bodyguard while I ventured out the compound gates for a quick shopping spree. There were only four things on my list: spears, cloth, beads, and tobacco.

Simple, right?         -- not always.

Gourd, pipe and tobacco.
The first market didn’t have anything I needed. Its limited stock carried only the cheap imported items. The Arabs, that left right before the referendum in January, had not returned. The venders that remained no longer carried the black and white Dinka beads or the colorful cloths, but they had plastic wrist watches for my shopping pleasure. How would I like a shiny new nail clipper or perhaps some shoes?         -- Humm.... not today. 

It was quickly apparent there was nothing I needed at this market, so we moved to the second one. Walking past mud huts bustling with activity, Maguak fielded questions from friends. He kept telling everyone I was his sister. No one believed him, but I think that was code for, ‘she’s not my girlfriend but don’t get fresh.’

The second market was were I’d find good tobacco, he assured me.

As we walked there, more than one drunk stumbled passed us. After the third one, it finally occurred to me why. It was the last day of the month-- payday for the soldiers. When pockets jingle with coins, it’s not long before bellies belch with beer.

Fortunately, it was still early enough not to be too bad... but they still found me.

Maguak, standing at an easy 6’5”, reminded me of a tree trunk as I hid behind him. Stretching out his arms like branches to encompass the two drunken, old men pressing in for a closer look, he spoke to them in a soft but determined voice. No, they couldn’t play with the Kowaja. All of the sudden, hands groped blindly behind the tree trunk, and I moved.

It was harmless teasing-- they just wanted to frighten me a bit. I’m told they like to scare the foreigners for laughs.

However, these men were disappointed twice. Maguak didn’t let them get close enough to do any real harm, and I didn’t respond to their antics.

Ignoring them completely, I walked off to the tobacco stalls just up the road. They called after me, and one even hustled passed me to stand in my path and greet me properly. (I think it was his way of apologizing.)

I pretended he wasn’t there and refused to shake his hand. He laughed good-naturedly at my composure and moved on. I’d somehow passed the test, I think.

Approaching the tobacco sellers, Maguak directed me to the one in the middle. His wares were no different than all his buddies. They all sold strong-smelling chewing tobacco tied in small plastic bags and crumbly chunks of pipe tobacco stacked in a pile.

It reminded me more of cow dung than tobacco, but then again... I wasn’t going to smoke it!

Images of me getting nicked by the airport security for trafficking drugs flashed through my head. How would I explain it’s just some mashed, fermented leaves from the sticks of Sudan? Would they believe me? Do drug sniffing dogs know the difference? I hope so.

Picking out my favorite chunks of cow dung, I paid with three, crumpled, Sudanese pounds that I pulled from my bra. Then I shook hands with the vendor, who smiled timidly at all the attention. Believe me, a Kowaja buying tobacco draws a crowd. Why 20 people needed to press in close to watch the exchange, baffles me, but it no longer surprises me.

After an hour of wandering the brick-red, dusty streets, I had only succeeded in finding one item on my list.

Determined to help me find beads, Maguak even tried to buy some off one woman’s neck. But the minute she understood they were for me, she wanted to charge an outrageous sum. Instantly offended, Maguak refused to even negotiate with her. He turned and walked away without a word.

When he told me the price, I laughed in disbelief. Fifty US dollars for three strands of plastic beads, is a bit excessive in my book, too.

However, as we walked on, we crossed paths with two men in their late 50s. One wore a dark green Jalibia (a one piece man-dress) and had a thick salt and pepper beard. He was of evident wealth, carrying both a spear and shield.

His friend, lean and wispy, wore white. Around his neck flowed colorful beads and when he laughed his whole body fluttered, reminiscent of a thin tree overcome by the southern winds. He laughed often, as I recall.

I told Maguak that I’d be interested in buying his shield. Did he think he’d be willing to sell it? Maguak stopped, turned about-face, and signaled for the man to return. I don’t know what was said, but the Man in Green seemed offended at the idea, and started to walk off.

So, I asked Maguak to translate for me: “Please tell him that I’m sorry I offended him for suggesting he sell me his prized shield.” At the translation of it, he squared his shoulders forward and looked at me straight on, contemplating this stranger before him.

“I only dared ask you to sell it because I have no gifts to give my father,” I explained. “I would love to have a shield to offer him.” He softened at my words and smiled back at me.

The well used shield hung from his shoulder by a strap of cotton twine. Taking it off, he explained that the hand piece was broken, but if I wanted it badly enough, we could discuss a price.

Thrilled beyond words, I informed Maguak to give him an offer of 40 pounds. Surprised at such a generous offer, he refused, sure he could get it for less. I let him do his thing, but trying to look disinterested was hard.
Maguak, my translator and the shield I purchased.
I’ve wanted a shield for months.

Last fall, I saw a man carrying a shield at the cow festival. It was so unusual, I ask him what it was. He allowed me to hold it and then displayed his fighting prowess by simulating a mock battle with one of his friends.

His friend danced toward him with a spear while he expertly blocked each blow. Plus, the Dinka shield is MUCH more than just a shield. It doubles as chair and pillow, depending on the need.

Oblong and tubular, it looks more like a giant, wooden cigar covered in cow hide. It’s feather-light, with a small handle on the backside which allows for easy maneuvering. It was the handle that was broken, then re-enforced with a inch wide strip of cloth.

Maguak got him down to 25 pounds, but he didn’t haggle long. I’m sure it was a high price, but I would have happily paid twice that.

As I fished out the money in my bra, I turned my back to them for privacy. This produced hearty laughs among the men. Why was I hiding my breasts? It’s not a secret that I have them... ha ha. It reminded me of my western-prudishness, and I joined them in the joke. Nevertheless, I had no intention of showing them anything.

After counting out the price in sweat-soaked bills and handing them over, I reached for my new treasure. Just before handing it over, the Man in Green hesitated. Smiling kindly, he lifted up the shield and spit on it.

I laughed happily, recognizing this as a blessing it was meant to be. (Yes, in Sudan, you spit on people and things as a blessing!) We jovially shook hands and I turned to go my way.

But then all of a sudden, the Friend in White asked to see it, as well. Not to be out done, he spit on it too, and then shook my hand enthusiastically. We all laughed.

Blessings upon blessings!

Walking away, it finally dawned on me: I’m not in the States anymore. I might not even be on earth. This raw and rugged land is run by towering men in charcoal suits. They laugh and grope. They spit and bless.

Is my life for real?

In the end, I was able to acquire more blisters than souvenirs, but I loved every minute of it. I only wish that I had thought to bring my camera.... next time!