Mama taught me better. She could give me a glare that brought me to my knees when she heard me talk about anyone without respect — especially Mabiordit. It was Mabiordit who had sheltered us when we came to Juba looking for Jal e Jal and ended up stranded, with nothing in Mama's purse but twenty pounds and a battered Nokia mobile that could receive calls but not make them.
The trip from Panagam had taken three days. Two bus tickets at two hundred pounds each were beyond our means, so we paid a local merchant fifty pounds and crouched on sacks of maize flour in the back of his rusted Honda pickup truck. The roads were still under construction, full of potholes, and so narrow that you could nearly touch the mud-thatch huts and thorny shrubs on either side. At one point we had to flatten ourselves against the flour sacks to keep from getting scratched when the truck pulled over to let a group of Land Rovers pass. They whizzed by like bullets, darkened windows shielding the faces of their drivers — government officials and NGO directors. They left nothing but dust in their wake.
In Juba, after trekking across five hundred miles — almost the length of South Sudan — we found Jal e Jal happily married, with three children, and not in the least pleased by our presence. After exchanging pleasantries, he adjusted himself in his chair, faced us directly, and confirmed the rumor, spread by various relatives, that what he and Mama had done on the grass-covered shores of the Loll River fifteen years ago — never mind that it begot me — was awoc, a mistake. He wanted nothing to do with us, he said, and would be grateful if we never contacted him again. Then he rose up, fixed his blue tie, buttoned his black suit, and disappeared through the square door of the New Cush restaurant. There was nothing more to say. All of this was fine by me. I was done waiting for my father's return from war. I wanted nothing to do with Jal e Jal — but you should've seen Mama, the grace and dignity on her face. It was heartbreaking and revolting at the same time. I wanted to slap her. What Jal e Jal deserved was a hard kick in the ass: fifteen years ago she had destroyed her marriage, disgraced her family, and deferred her dreams, all for him. Now she had discarded everything for him once again — a house built by her own hands, based on her blind brother's measurements, a world back in Panagam that she had forged from nothing — only to find that he had mutated into someone else.
Mabiordit, my dead aunt Adau's husband, was the only other person we knew in Juba. Aunt Adau had been found floating facedown in the Loll River twenty years ago, just a year into their marriage. This tragedy might have warranted an investigation if it hadn't been wartime. Air strikes and raids were a constant threat back then; death was so ubiquitous that people stopped asking how or why. Despite my suspicions about Mabiordit, we had no choice but to accept his invitation.
We were downtown by midday, at a roadside cafe outside the Equity Bank. We drank over-sugared tea and ate biscuits for brunch. Then we sat on a metal bench, facing the street, and watched the city people to kill time. So this was Juba, the nation's largest and oldest city, a swirl of congestion and commotion. In places it looked like a ghost town: looking around I could see old, dilapidated brick buildings, and electric wires twisted and tangled around wooden utility poles. But the air was thick with cement dust from the construction sites that lined the streets, stirred up by workers digging foundations and expanding the thin dirt roads. This was coupled with the roar of countless motorcycles, and of the minibuses haphazardly collecting passengers. A random madness seemed to be the core energy of the city.
No wonder the littered streets, mud huts, and stick-and-plastic-bag slums were bustling with young people from rural villages. They were barefoot and penniless, but buoyant with dreams of a larger world to be part of. We had heard news of East African entrepreneurs peddling loan schemes, insurance pyramids, and housing projects, of NGOs with abundant resources and grand notions of salvation and development. The NGOs were convinced they could steer our nascent state away from corruption and nepotism, if only by holding up the warning signs:
MANY HAVE TAKEN THIS ROAD
IT DOES NOT LEAD TO FREEDOM
IT DOES NOT LEAD TO PROSPERITY
IT DOES NOT LEAD TO STABILITY
IT DOES NOT LEAD TO DEMOCRACY
JUST LOOK AT YOUR BRETHREN COUNTRIES
At four o'clock we began to look around for Mabiordit.
From "The Bastard" by Nyuol Tong, which originally appeared in McSweeney's 43 in a section devoted to South Sudanese fiction, and now appears in The Best of McSweeney's. Copyright 2013 by Nyuol Tong. Excerpted by permission of McSweeney's.