They arrive slowly, one by one, from all directions, many having walked long distances to be here. They return to this place, at this time, every week, and they take their familiar positions under this huge perfectly drawn cartoon tree of shade; perfectly domed at its top, and perfectly flat along its underside, at this hour it casts a perfectly round shadow twenty yards in diameter directly beneath its ancient branches.
The men walk slowly, the sun at its highest point casting the slightest of shadows a tiny black mark on the ground follows closely behind them. Even in stooped old age these men are giants, their long sinewy limbs accentuating their height, their slow long careful strides rhythmically mimicking the way they live. This is a well-practiced walk, the walk of men who have spent their lives walking, men who have spent every day of their lives under the direct heat of the sun. This steady walk is not through lethargy or a symptom of age, but because this method of travel minimises the use of energy; at this speed no matter how far the distance, and no matter how long the duration these men can delay fatigue until their journey has been completed. These men are herdsmen, as their fathers and grandfathers before them; their lives spent moving their cattle through the dust, from pasture land to watering hole, along the same tired tracks, through the same tired landscape, day after day, year after year. Now, much older, these ancient men still walk those tracks; maybe they are not as tall, maybe they are slightly slower, maybe the stick they use to move the cattle is also now used to help them move themselves, but they are still walking, it is what they do.
They are meeting under this tree, as they always have, and as the old men before them have always done. There is no agenda, no opening remarks and no schedule or timetable to adhere to, they begin when they arrive, and they end when they leave, this is their meeting place, the meeting place of the elders.
The chief is already there, he sits in silence on a broken bed carried in each time for his exclusive use, the frame erected from bent branches, the mattress a crisscross of different coloured fraying plastic ropes hardly registering his light frame. He adjusts his limbs, legs crossed at the knee, calves together side by side, arms loosely folding into his lap, his weary eyes watery yellow, stare out across the land at nothing in particular, looking at the horizon yet perhaps seeing into the past. His dusty, dirty smock hangs over him like a loose nightshirt, gently moving in the warm wind as the holes and tears of years of wearing and travelling provide the air an entrance to cool his body. His face a mask of his life, of his hard life, his brow low and creased sits over half-closed eyes permanently shading them from the sun and protecting them from the blinding billowing dust- clouds of the plains.
Other men are already here as well, they are similarly dressed, their age and histories also etched into their faces. They rest on a collection of dirty, cracked plastic chairs, on bent broken wood and rope seats, or sprawl on the floor. One man wears odd flip-flops, the orange of the left contrasting with the green of the right. Another man wears white, or what were once white, patent leather slip-on shoes, the soles opened up revealing his feet, the uppers split by black rivers through the grey. The chief wears matching flip-flops; they are worn and tired, and have clearly been repaired many times; the caked earth and dust evidence of the miles they have moved, the word SPORT, barely visible across the top of his cracked, dried feet advertising their once intended use. One man arrives leaving behind mini tyre tracks that his recycled sandals briefly imprint in the dirt before being carried away by the wind. The flies gather upon this collection of smells and sweaty flesh like wedding guests upon a buffet, and only one man notices.
This man, the white man is honoured to be here, he is kawaga, the traveller. That is his name, the name that follows him everywhere he goes in this land, shouted and sung by children from homes far in the distance, and whispered by ladies at water pumps. Sitting uncomfortably in his pristine clean plastic chair he is a stranger; he is not one of these men, his eyes have not seen the endless, never nearing horizon of a thousand mile walk. His face has not developed a natural shade from the sun, nor looked up in fear to see the Russian made planes flying low overhead searching for a target to unleash their murderous loads. His eyes are young and naïve, they have seen nothing of this world, and though he hasn’t travelled these paths he is a traveller, kawaga.
He sits in his perfectly white seat, sleeves rolled, sweat running like a waterfall down his spine. He checks his watch again, discreetly, not wanting to draw attention to his apparent impatience; the hands having long ago joined in prayer at their summit are looking to meet briefly once again. The men continue to arrive, the chief continues to stare into the past, the other men continue to sit silent and still, spitting occasionally, the flies continue to feed.
Kawaga, the traveller, is waiting, hoping that the chief will grant him an audience and he knows that the waiting is all part of the process, the silent still waiting is an interview of sorts, an initiation, and a test. And so he waits. Nobody notices him waiting, he could pick up his chair and leave and no one would notice.
The driver arrives, armed with bottles of soda, they are distributed and efficiently consumed without words of acknowledgement or thanks. A brief moment of murmured quiet laughter, one of the old men sprays himself with an amateur opening of a warm fizzy drink having not released the gas first, smiling sheepishly at the mistake.
This scene is hundreds of years old, having changed very little over time; it is painted in sepia, all the colours drained from the image by the harsh sun and unrelenting dust, the shiny bright colourful soda bottles look out of place, superimposed into the painting as a modern-day afterthought. They continue to sit, the chief continues to stare, the men continue to arrive, kawaga continues to sweat.
He has been here for well over an hour, his head is starting to ache, and his shoes feel hot and uncomfortable. What has he learned? If he is sent away has he learned anything? Well, he’s learned that he may well wait until the time is right, he has learned that he might be granted an audience, the sodas at least have helped that, he now knows that polyester mix trousers don’t go well with plastic seating and he has learned that the chief is a Sprite man, he apparently has no love for Coca-Cola.
Without warning or reason, the chief speaks, his words are quiet and had they been in English the kawaga still wouldn’t have been able to make them out. He wonders if the chief was just talking to himself, his eyes haven’t moved from the horizon, and nobody stirs at the sound of his voice.
The interpreter, the young headmaster, whispers:
“He says you can speak, you can tell them why you are here.”
“Will they answer my questions?”
“I don’t know, he didn’t say.”
Speaking slowly, and carefully, he introduces himself, and states his intentions; using short and concise sentences he wants to give the interpreter the opportunity to translate the words correctly, to accurately portray their meaning. This is rapidly translated into Dinka, and the men nod with understanding, though initially the chief is unmoved and unresponsive, after careful consideration the chief at last nods his approval, and over the next hour or so, the questions are carefully asked and translated and then carefully answered and translated back. The chief always speaking first, always briefly, the other men answer when his words have been understood. They tell of their history, of their hopes for the future and elaborate upon their problems and concerns for their village and its people.
What do these old men, these men who’ve seen nothing of the world other than the thousands of miles of dusty dry land and watering holes, think of him? Have they seen it all before, just another traveller, passing through, trying to bring well-intended change to their place? Are they tired of the endless questioning, are they tired of false promises, of grand gestures and failed initiatives, and are they tired of the good intentioned yet continued interruptions in their lives? Have others come before to sit with them bringing with them unwanted gifts of American sodas?
The hands on his watch are close to joining again, they have moved almost a quarter of the way around his wrist since he first arrived, but before they get the chance to be pressed together for the third time, the chief speaks. Although not understanding the words, the message is clear. It is time to go. With a stiff, damp awkwardness the kawaga collects his chair, and unsure of what to do next, he demonstrates his humble thanks bowing his head to the chief mouthing suitable words of appreciation. The chief has the final say, he takes his eyes from the horizon and looks directly at the bowed kawaga, delivering a long and winding complicated speech with no emotion or clue to its intention or meaning, and as he finishes he gazes back into history.
The unlikely pair, the white man and the young headmaster, immediately forgotten, make their way out of the shade back into the blinding sun, with shadows longer than they were at their arrival they walk towards the waiting vehicle.
Fumbling for his sunglasses to relieve his eyes the kawaga turns to his young assistant, eager to hear the parting words of the chief:
“What did he say?”
“He said that he approves of your work, and thanks you for trying to help the young people of the area”
“Fantastic! Did he say anything else?”
The headmaster smiles with his reply:
“He said he wished he was a younger man so that he too could benefit personally from your work, from the work of your organisation.”
“Brilliant! Was that everything he said?”
Knowing the headmasters tendency to edit the words translated, the desire to do a good job meaning that any negative responses are often softened or removed, the kawaga was keen to understand every word of the parting speech good and bad.
“Well he did say one other thing”
“OK, come on then, what was it? Was it bad?”
The headmaster, laughing by now at the kawaga’s eagerness replies:
“He said thanks for the soda.”