by Victor Lugala
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A few hours later Riti heard a raspy knock on the door. Two heavily built men entered the office and found Riti at his desk, rubbing his chin which was beginning to sprout hair. Due to the general acute food shortage most people in town were skinny but the two strangers looked well fed and healthy, an indication that they were new arrivals, most probably from Khartoum.
"Riti, how are you?" said one of the two men. He sounded friendly as if he knew Riti. Although Riti was quite surprised he didn't show it. The other man wore an expressionless face.
"You are the photographer here, aren't you?"
Riti nodded. He didn't know the two strangers. He couldn't remember meeting or seeing them. He could swear he didn't know them. They were southerners, alright, but they spoke in fluent, refined Arabic. They spoke like people who had studied in good Arabic schools in northern Sudan.
"We are security. We are on duty. Can you get away from your desk for a minute?" The man said this while his colleague remained silent.
One of the security men, the one who didn't say a word at all, went to Riti's desk and pulled opened the drawer. He rummaged through black and white printed photographs. He shuffled the photographs like cards and stopped to study a photograph that caught his attention. He twisted his mouth sideways and spoke for the first time.
"Riti, you have such a rich photo library. Were you the one took all these photos?" The man's voice sounded feminine, which didn't match his masculine physique.
Riti sort of nodded innocently. He never locked his drawers because it was a public office.
"We found what we are looking for. Can you accompany us to headquarters?" said the security man with the feminine voice.
Riti hesitated, confused, but managed to say, "My boss must know while I'm accompanying you two because I'm still on duty."
South Sudan, 1992. Civil war is raging and Riti is terrified that love will end up spelling his doom, delivering him into the hands of the army and pushing him through the door of the white house.
The white house is the prison from which no man returns alive once deemed a rebel, a fifth columnist, a sympathiser.
This is a story about how love doesn't just terrify, love does the unthinkable, love is everything, binding a community together and love is sacrificing - taking on the worst shame to save another from the worst fate. Riti may fear it but love surrounds him and is inescapable and is what decides his end.
Reviewed by Marisa Wikramanayake
To say that Riti was having a bad week would be an understatement.
Imagine yourself in the terror-pit that was 1990’s Juba in Sudan. Every movement, every action, could spell disaster.
Disaster, in its worst form, meant a trip to the White House. Few returned.
Riti wants out. Finding a way to get to Khartoum seems to be his best option. But how?
His relationship with his sister is strained because he is sure she is sleeping with the ‘enemy’. His girlfriend is acting strangely. His job as a photographer for the local newspaper exposes him to all aspects of a disintegrating city.
Riti is being watched. He can feel it. Why are they watching? All it takes is the right word to the wrong person and the government thugs come for you.
In occupied Paris during WW2, the line between survival and collaboration was very fine indeed. Such a thin line could easily cut your throat. Juba was all of that.
Victor’s novella deftly draws us into such a world. Sourcing adequate food and shelter requires being either indispensable, or having something of value to offer. Often ‘value’ meant sex. If your value was high enough, doors could open.
All in all, a well-crafted glimpse into a life few of us will ever encounter. For anyone who studies African life, this is an opportunity to experience the actuality of the worst-case situation.
Today Juba is the capital of a relatively new country, South Sudan. In its unfortunate new life, the same old problems have new faces. I hope to live long enough to see a change for the better.
Reviewed by L. Ellis
Victor Lugala is a South Sudanese journalist, poet and short story writer. He was educated in Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya where he received a master's degree in Communications from Daystar University. Among his self-published works are Pot of Tears, Beating the Drums of War, collection of poems and Vomiting Stolen Food, a satire about corruption in his home country, South Sudan.
Lugala's fame rests mainly with his long running humour column, "The Shoeshiner" which began in 2003 on the pages of the Sudan Mirror, a weekly publication for Sudan, based at the time in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. After the Mirror folded several years later, the popular column resurfaced in the Pioneer, another weekly that was launched in the South Sudan in 2010. The Pioneer ceased publication in 2013.
Paperback: 75 pages
Publisher: Africa World Books
The information and views set out in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publishers. Neither the publishers nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the nature, veracity or accuracy of the information contained herein or the use which may be made thereof.