There are no old men in South Sudan, so I think this one must be a ghost. He appeared in the middle of the street, in the white light carved from the darkness by a passing Land Cruiser’s headlamp. His hair is white, like a ghost’s, but I do not know why a ghost would need a cane. I do not know where he came from. No one in Juba walks outside after the sun goes down. If it is a man, I should call Bosco to alert him there is a witness. That is after all why Bosco is paying me to sit here tonight outside King Solomon Restaurant. But if it is a ghost I dare not call; he will know what I am here for.
It is because of men like Bosco that no one in Juba walks outside at night.
I am grateful that there is no moon tonight, as the ghost limps slowly until he comes to the gate just outside King Solomon. I ask myself, why would a ghost limp, but if a man is lame in life, maybe he is lame in death, too Very still he stands looking in, leaning gently on his walking stick. He seems to be waiting. The guard, a tall, underfed Dinka man, nods and says, “ Salaam , father,” but the ghost does not reply.
The guard is not a concern; Bosco has taken care of him. It is the ghost who is making me nervous, not only because he may be a spirit, but because he is in my way. This is my first carjacking. My job is to keep an eye on the Ugandan who owns the Infiniti parked outside, and to call Bosco as soon as I see him get up from his table under the tent outside the restaurant. Only this Ugandan, he has been in there a long time. Bottles of Tusker Malt sit empty on the plastic before him, bright green, and when the Ethiopian waitress comes to collect them and bring him more, he reaches for her and she slaps his hand. But she is smiling as she slaps, and her teeth shine. Her skin is smooth brown, the color of new leather. She is a prostitute, and after I am paid for this operation I will at last have the money for an hour with her. Since Independence last year, prostitutes, like everything else in Juba, have become expensive—too expensive for most South Sudanese.
It is a hot night. Only the Ugandan is sitting in the outdoor area of King Solomon, but a few cars remain parked outside beside the Infiniti. Others must still be inside, gorging themselves on njera and beer and smiling at prostitutes. I sit in the dark, watching the ghost, watching the Ugandan, waiting.
I check the time on my mobile: It has been an hour. A large group of white people in dress shirts and polished shoes comes laughing out of the air-conditioned interior of King Solomon, climb into separate white Toyota Prados, and drive off. Now the street is empty: It is me, the guard, the Infiniti, silver as a knife, and the ghost. Some children come running up the street, accompanied by a barking dog. They make noise and kick dust into the air, and I hiss at them to go away. This is no place for children—and besides, they may be working for someone else. Bosco uses children often for gunrunning, but he is not the only one.
Why has the ghost not moved? What is he waiting for? I realize that my teeth are chattering, even though it is a warm night with no wind. It must be the doing of the ghost; he knows, surely, what I am here to do. I tell myself, he is only a ghost, a phantom; he cannot touch or hurt me. Damn him! Why must he be here tonight? I am already nervous enough. Bosco came to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Scarface, are you ready to be worthy of your name? We are a new country, and we must have soldiers. Are you ready to be a soldier for your General Bosco?” I knew what he was asking, and I said, “Yes, brother,” because I was.
I had to come to Juba from Malakal five years ago when my father died. I lived with my uncle, a captain of the SPLA, who provided for our family, all thirty-one of us. Last year, in the rainy season, he was killed by a mortar in Kordofan, on the border with North Sudan. His wives received a small payment from the government, but it was not enough for all of the family. That is when I began to work for Bosco.
At first, I was afraid of him. He wore a great golden cross on a chain around his neck, and he had a silver tooth, a thing I had never seen at home in Malakal. When Bosco goes to the barbershop, the one with the big photograph outside of the American 50 Cent, he gets the letters “O.G.” shaved into his hair. He can do whatever he wants because the police know—everyone knows—that his father is the Deputy Minister for Energy.
Bosco is not a big man, but he is a thick one, with a fat belly. If we play football, he plays forward, and he likes to run into defenders and make them go flying. He did this to me once, and I cried for a foul. He laughed like a barking dog, like it had been very long since he had heard anything so funny, and then played on. I try to laugh like this now when other drivers complain that my brothers and I are stealing their best pickup corners. I bark my dog-laugh, and take out my mobile and wag it at them, reminding them that I work for the man who controls guns in Juba. Then they do not complain any more.
I must focus. I look back to the gate of King Solomon and realize the ghost is gone. Good. He was not here for us. Who knows what other evil is taking place inside the restaurant tonight, what corruption? This is Juba, after all. I despise Juba. Compared to Malakal, where the Nile is blue and slow and we bathe naked in the river, where the trees grow squat and thick in the cool black earth, Juba is an ugly city of tribes and red dust and diesel stink.
I go over my role in my mind: When the Ugandan comes out, I will swing my boda-boda behind his car and block him in. That is my job tonight, and I repeat the steps to myself until I know them as well as I know the ridges of the V-shaped scars my uncle carved into my forehead when I became parapuol —no longer a dung-carting child, but a warrior and guardian of cattle. All Dinka men have them, but my scars are straight and even. They show I did not flinch at the touch of the knife.
It is not that I do not make money with my boda-boda . I do—ten pounds each ride. Sometimes I am hired for the day, for one hundred pounds. Bosco takes five pounds from every ride, and will until I have paid off the one thousand seven hundred pounds I owe him for the bike. Then I will buy other boda-bodas , and rent them out, and soon I too will own a house with lights, stone floors, and my own generator. I plan even to have an Xbox, like Bosco. But I cannot wait years and years to be wealthy; I must provide for my sisters until they can bring us enough money in dowry. But they are young still, ten and twelve, and their dowries are too far off. To survive here, in this new country, I must have money now, so here I am, lurking like a hippo in dark water.
I am ready to be a soldier. Just because I am nervous does not mean I am not ready. It is only a carjacking, after all. But Bosco is right. To survive in this new country, every man must be a soldier: ready to fight, and ready to die. In truth I do not know if I am ready to die, but I have seen enough people die to know that after they are dead, their faces do not look all that different. Maybe it is not such a terrible thing, to be dead.
Now finally the Ugandan gets up laboriously. He wobbles as he stands, and in bowing goodnight to the prostitute of King Solomon, he swings his arm back and knocks his plastic chair end over end. I scan the street for witnesses like I have seen gangsters do in movies, but this is only for show; it is not as if anyone will interfere in this. Certainly no South Sudanese will risk his skin to save a rich Ugandan trader. I send Bosco the message.
The Ugandan comes out of the gate of the restaurant. He does not bother to scan the street; he has had too much to drink. A moment later, I see the round shape of Bosco, thick and silent, moving in the darkness along the wall of King Solomon. He stays out of the light, as he has taught me to do. My job now is to turn on my boda-boda but keep the headlamp off, and as soon as the Ugandan turns on his car, to drive up and stop right behind the Infiniti so it cannot back out. Bosco says I will not have to get off the bike; Bosco will throw the man out of the car, jump in, and drive away, and I will meet him back in Munuki.
The Ugandan walks unsteadily toward his car, and I turn the key in its ignition, gently awakening the engine. He does not wave to the guard, who now turns and head back through the gate to use the toilet, just as Bosco has paid him to do.
Drunk and fat, the Ugandan lumbers to his car and fumbles with his keys. I hear the beep, but then he tugs at his door and it does not open. He has locked it, I realize, and I would laugh, except that in the orange flash of his lights, the silhouette of an old man with a walking stick flickers on the King Solomon wall. Maybe my mind is playing tricks. I squint into the darkness, fear surging in my throat, and I force it down like my mother taught me to do with rotted food. I touch my fingertips to the scars on my forehead. I am Dinka. I am a soldier.
I am close enough to hear the Ugandan curse under his breath and stab his fat fingers at his keys. The car beeps again, and he pulls open the door. I tell my body, “Be obedient, body. You have a job to do.”
I twist the accelerator and swing my boda-boda behind the Infiniti. Just before the Ugandan closes the door, Bosco is on him, grabbing the door and pulling it open. I have never seen him move so quickly. With his left hand he holds the Ugandan by the shirt collar, in his right he holds his big knife, which he lifts to the terror-stricken Ugandan’s throat.
Bosco says, calmly, with a cold smile in his eyes, “Brother, don’t you know it is bad to drink and drive?” With a grunt, he pulls the man out of the car and throws him to the ground. “I am doing this for your own good,” smiles Bosco, climbing into the car and looking over his prize.
My heart is going to shatter the bones of my chest, but I remember to pull back from the car to let it out. The Ugandan scrambles to his feet and instead of running like he should, the drunk madman hurls himself at the door of the Infiniti, shouting in a language I do not understand. I see the smile disappear from Bosco’s eyes, which grow suddenly hard and mean.
He kicks the door open and sends the Ugandan flying. He hits the dirt with a thump like a bag of cornmeal being dropped. He groans, and curses in broken Arabic: “Pig shits!” He is going to wake the whole street with his shrieking—yet Bosco does not drive away. Has he gone mad? He has the car! I want to shout at him, but I cannot shout at Bosco. Slowly, he gets out of the Infiniti and takes out his big knife, his favorite. The Ugandan scrambles to his feet and takes a fighting stance. The big knife gleams in the light coming from King Solomon, but he is not afraid of the knife, I realize, and so does Bosco.
“Brother,” says Bosco quietly, “I said, I am doing you a favor. You should be grateful.”
He can hardly stand up straight from the alcohol and the anger, but I see he is not going to run. He is pawing the earth like a crazed bull. What is this car to him? What man risks his life for a car?
“I am warning you,” Bosco growls, “I will not tell you again.”
The Ugandan gives a savage roar and charges and there is a deafening bang as Bosco pulls a gun from his belt and fires it straight at his skull. His head snaps back and his legs sweep upward like he is kicking an invisible soccer ball and he lands flat on his back and lies unmoving in the dirt, as a cloud of dust floats up over him, lit by the lamps of the Infiniti.
I cannot move. Bosco is shouting at me, but I haven’t heard him over the rushing sound of blood in my ears. I do not even know my own name. I reach up to touch my face, as though I will discover the same blood running down it that is flowing across the face of the Ugandan in the dirt, but no, I am dry. I touch my forehead, and feel the soft dead flesh of my scars. I am Matthew Duk Yei Achak, I remember. Scarface. I feel my soul reenter my body, finally, and the shouting of Bosco enter my ears.
“Go, donkey, go!” he is shouting, “Get out of here!” I am back on my boda-boda , turning the key in the ignition when I hear the click of a gun behind my head.
We turn, slowly. It is the ghost, standing in a hazy beam of light falling from King Solomon’s electric bulbs. He is leaning on his cane with one hand and pointing a gun at us with the other. The dust swirling in a cloud around him shimmers like bright water, and his crown of white hair shines. I see now he has the same forehead scars as I do.
There is silence in the street. No one has come out of the restaurant. We are alone: two men, a ghost, and a dead body.
Bosco bursts out in laughter. “What are you planning to do with that thing, old man? You cannot even stand on your own feet. It would break your arm to pull the trigger! You look like a ghost! Is that what you are? What are you doing out of hell? Ah, Scarface—I know what he needs! Go and fetch us a cow, we will sacrifice it to him, and he can ride its spirit back to where he came from!”
The ghost’s expression does not change. He holds the gun steady and takes a step toward us. I feel a fishhook pierce my heart. I step back, but Bosco levels the gun at him. They stand five feet apart, Bosco holding the gun out sideways like 50 Cent, his arm extended, while the ghost keeps his by his hip.
“So what is it, father?” shouts Bosco. “Are you a man, whose brains I will paint the earth with, or a ghost I can send home to hell? Either way, I do not have time for you. Go! Back to your grave.”
The ghost does not move. Bosco is becoming more agitated, his hand begins to shake. “Why don’t you fuck off? I tell you, go! I am giving you one last chance—you see what I can do? I will not tell you again either.”
The ghost’s chest rises and falls gently, evenly. Light seems almost to be passing through him. He holds the weapon steady.
“Ghost, do you think you frighten Bosco Majok Chang? My father will—”
Lightning flashes from the ghost’s hip; a firecracker explodes in his hand; Bosco flails back, slams into the Infiniti, and slumps against its front wheel. Before I know what is happening the ghost is on me, beating me with his cane as I roll in the dust, trying to get away with him.
“Please, ghost, please!” I beg him, covering my face and head, curling into a ball to avoid his blows. My whole right side explodes into a white burst of pain as his cane catches me in the lower back. I wail, but the hitting does not stop.
“You. . . ” I gasp out between the blows, “what are you?”
He swings a kick at my stomach and my vision goes blue and my lungs crumple like newspaper. He is so strong! I taste blood in my mouth. My ears are ringing like the drone of a speeding Senke. He crouches down beside me and grips the collar of my shirt, pulling my face toward his.
His eyes are sunken and bloodshot, and many of his teeth are gone. The spindled wrinkles branch out from his eyes like the seams of drought-cracked earth. He aims the gun between my eyes. I want to beg for mercy but I cannot make words because I still cannot draw air. I have never felt such fear in my life. I am going to die like my father died, bloody and beaten in the dust, a bullet in my brain.
Slowly, the ghost begins to trace my forehead scars with the muzzle of the pistol. Heat radiates from the weapon, but I only feel a numb tingle where it touches my scars. He has two V’s, like me. Then he releases my collar, and my head hits the ground, hard. He gets to his feet. This is how it happened to my father as I watched from the window of my home. The man that had dragged him out stood over him, there was a bang, my father jerked once, and was still. Blessed Jesus, I am not ready to die.
A raindrop splatters on my cheek and trickles toward my nose; he has spat on me. The ghost kicks me one last time and I hear his footsteps walking away. Then I hear an engine start, and the last thing I see is the gleam of the Infiniti’s headlamps and a white-crowned head in the window before the night sky unclips from the heavens, drops, and everything goes black.