We arrive in Gumaruk under the powerful rays of a midday sun. The village is slightly larger than Manyabol and resembles the old American West. Hordes of SPLA soldiers lounge on battered verandas as flies buzz around sparsely stocked food stands. The heat is unbearable and there is almost no shade to speak of.
At the end of Gumaruk’s one main street, under its one large tree, dozens of residents vie for refuge. At the center of the scene sit several candidates from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. A handsome man in a pristine black suit addresses the crowd through a microphone. “SPLM Oyeeee!,” he yells. “Oyeeeee,” the crowd musters lethargically. The chant is common during election season and loosely translates as, “SPLM is on top.” The sharp looking man is a spokesman of the party and its present candidates, who sit fanning themselves in cumbersomely warm suits.
For the first time on the campaign trial, Mary is face-to-face with her political opponents. She has, since announcing her candidacy, faced pressure from the SPLM to withdraw from the race. Her only direct competitor for the Pibor National Assembly seat is a women running on behalf of the SPLM. While she is the wife of a late, Murle war hero, she is neither from Pibor, nor a member of the tribe herself. In an environment where political support is often based on tribe and reputation, Mary’s fame as a musician and notoriety among the Murle increases her chances of victory.
“I’m scared that people will vote for me because they know me as a musician,” Mary told me weeks earlier. “I think many people will support me, even though they don’t know my platform, and that makes me fear.” While her sentiments contradict most western sensibilities, the political landscape here is leaps and bounds from advanced democracy. In a place where political competition is new, violence is recent and power is sacred, challenging the establishment can be dangerous.
The atmosphere in Gumaruk is tense and Mary decides that she will not attempt to host a formal rally. Feeling overwhelmed by the heat, I distance myself from the crowds and rest against our parked car. As I scribble notes about the scene, I notice a small, paunchy man approaching with a suspicious and unfriendly expression. He squints his eyes and leans close to inspect the press passes hanging from my neck.
“Hello,” I say, his head only inches from mine. No response. “Can I help you,” I ask, irritated by his disregard for my personal space. He’s too busy inspecting the fine print to acknowledge me. “What are you doing here,” he demands, as though the extended examination of my visible credentials afforded him no insights. “I’m a journalist,” I say, “I’m working on a story about Mary Boyoi.” He pauses for a minute, presumably confused about which track to pursue from here.
“Why,” he demands. “Why am I doing a story about Mary,” I ask rhetorically, surprised by his brazen approach. “Yes, why Mary.” His tone is increasingly aggressive and suggests little genuine interest in my answers. Around his neck sits a blue lanyard with SPLM printed in repetitive, white letters. The attached identification card is conveniently tucked into his shirt pocket. His political motivations now clear, I become certain that no answer will be satisfactory and I decide it wise to offer as little information as possible. “Because these are elections and journalists cover candidates,” I say, collecting my things from the hood of the car. He does not want to let me go, but can’t think of a good enough reason to stop me. He glares in my direction as I walk towards the crowd.
After deciding that a night in Gumaruk might not be wise, we pile back into the car and drive the final leg to Pibor. The town, which consists of little more than few shops built inside metal shipping containers, appears from nothing. The soft light of early evening shrouds a group of men playing soccer on a parched UN airstrip, which forms Pibor’s western boundary. A cloud of thick dust follows the players, obscuring the action. White, World Food Program storage tents line the airstrip, a visible sign of Jonglei’s ongoing food shortage. An inactive cell phone tower taunts local residents, most of whom have no means of communication with the outside world. It is, in many ways, a concentrated example of the challenges here.
As night descends on Pibor, Mary receives word that one of her supporters has been arrested. Unsure of the circumstances the arrest, she begins to fear that a similar fate might await her here. With the news fresh in her mind, we head to the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) compound with hopes of pitching our tents within its walls. It is not until we are inside the compound that I learn that Mary has no existing relationships with MSF staff in Pibor nor had she previously alerted them of her intentions to stay in their compound. “I am a famous musician in southern Sudan and I am now running as a political candidate,” she explains to a skeptical logistics manager, Chris. “This man is a journalist covering my story,” she adds, gesturing in my direction. Chris looks me up and down and I know, without a doubt, that there’s no way we’re sleeping in this compound.
“Have some water and let me go check with my boss about this,” he says in between drags of a cigarette. He is exceedingly thin and looks tired, two understandable conditions for someone who’s been in Pibor for nearly six months. Sure that the answer will be a resounding no, I consider saving him the perfunctory trip and its related banter. A small glimmer of hope envelopes my tongue, however, and I say nothing. I fill a mug with cold, clean water, the first of it’s kind that I’ve had in several days. My lips and mouth and feel dry.
As Chris disappears into the night, I lurk in the shadows of the MSF mess hall, peering at the activities inside. An American accent describes the movie Old School to a Belgian colleague. I see a man looking over a woman’s shoulder as they swap digital films on external hard drives. “You should definitely take it,” he says, “it’s hilarious.” I shake my head in agreement, as if I’m part of their conversation. I wish I could just chill out and watch Old School, I think.
The stereo inside blares Evenflow, by Pearl Jam, a favored band of my angsty, adolescent years. Hidden in the darkness, I silently mouth the words to the chorus and wonder what happened to my collection of Pearl Jam tee shirts. The thought is soon interrupted by the unmistakable sound of released carbonation from the porch. Like an alerted dog, my head straightens and I avoid making unnecessary sounds. On the far side of the porch, I spot an MSF staffer taking the first sip of an ice-cold Corona. In a flash, my water loses all appeal. Sweating beer in hand, she strides into the yard where other staffers prepare charcoal for a barbeque. Drenched in ulterior motives and very thinly veiled desperation, I move in to make small talk. No one seems interested.
Chris returns with a look that quickly crushes my budding fantasy of Coronas, grilled meat and peace of mind. “I cannot allow you to sleep here,” he says in a direct tone typical of many Europeans. “Perhaps you can find accommodation in town.” Mary appears distressed, a feeling that I quickly assume. “But I am concerned for my security here,” she pleads. “One of my supporters has been arrested and I am not sure if I will be safe.” Standing in the darkness, with no accommodation in sight and a dwindling amount of time in this oasis of security, my blood begins to boil. I had not, until just now, heard Mary admit that she feared for her safety in Pibor. In all my neurotic, security-related queries, Mary insisted that everything here would be fine. I suspected, however, that her interest in my coverage led to a particularly rosy forecast.
“It is exactly because you have these security concerns that I cannot allow you to stay in the compound,” Chris explains, his patience on the decline. Having worked with international organizations in the past, I understood his reasoning and knew there was no chance of reconsidering. “Thanks anyway,” I manage over a growing lump in my throat. “Let’s get a move on.”
The light from the few florescent bulbs inside the compound fades quickly outside the gate and we’re soon enveloped by the darkness of Pibor. While I’m sure the town is visible ahead, I squint futilely into a black abyss. My stomach knots as we lumber towards the car, unsure of what lies ahead. “Well, what now,” I ask Mary with clear irritation. “I don’t know,” she responds somberly. Her concerned expression and unusually humble tone cut through me. If I’m in a bad spot, she’s in a worse one, I think.
The driver turns the engine and steps on the accelerator. The car lurches forward, without direction, into the night. The taillights of a vehicle meander down a road in the far distance. Without them, we might as well be on the moon.