In a tiny plane, with bags piled up behind us and the pilot only three seats ahead, we are flying over Uganda. Beneath is nothing and everything – green plains, the long, dark smudge of forests and shining ribbons of river water. At Arua, we stop to let some people off; the immigration service is an old school desk with a hand painted sign hanging on one side. At the Yei airstrip – a bald sand field – we run, bent over, beneath the wing and spinning propeller.
It is a town of potholed roads, rutted deep, where guys play dominoes on slanting tables and there are stalls selling nuts and oranges piled into little pyramids of three. Yei comes from to put down, a name reaching back to when the river was a trade route – now the water is filled with women washing clothes, the boys cleaning white dust from their motorbikes.
Here, the words ‘during the war’ come not from my Grandpa Les (teacup, moustache, faded photograph, the way we used to laugh at those three words), but from men who are young, so young. When they say it, they mean last year. Their eyes are circled yellow. Here, the memory is fresh and raw. Ndole shows me a burial site, a concrete plinth. Beneath us was a shipping container where people from the town were tortured and buried. There is a tsss from the teeth of the guy next to me – he has a gold earring with the shape of a crucifix hanging beneath.
I work in the clinic wit Asenita, the midwife. The waiting rooms is full of squalling babies, turning from nipples with hot young faces. There is a long line of women and we start with Mary and Anna and Lilias. I watch the colours of their printed dresses, listen to the sound of their voices and steady them when they step on the scales so I can read their weight. Above the bed is a Manchester City calendar – frozen with images of famous players – which Asenita used to count due dates. Mary is seventeen and worried because her baby hasn’t been moving. She pulls her dress up and we smear gel on her belly. A minute later we hear the heartbeat and her lovely eyes fill with a smile.
On the way to meet the money changer – he’ll give us a better rate than the banks with those fingers and fast as oil – we pass the machine for demining. The other day, I’ve been told, they were in the school playground.
On the last day I go with Elizabeth to Ligitolo, to meet the women’s microenterprise group. Elizabeth has become my friend for the few days I am here and I want to stay longer. We ride boda-bodas and the guy laughs at me I hold onto his t-shirt tight, dust in my eyes. We’re in a church with concrete walls and planks and stones for benches. Kangas are spread out in bright splashes to protect from the dust. We have sweet black tea from plastic cups and ten metres away, under the trees, women are cooking posho and beans in huge metal pots. Moses falls asleep on me on the way back, his small body curled into the crook of my shoulder.
How do you begin to define yourself as South Sudanese? After years of civil war, how do you assert an identity you fought so long to achieve? What does it mean to be the newest country in the world, the fifty-fourth African state? And how can it be that this morning I was in Yei, with dust in my hair, and then Entebbe Airport, surrounded by American accents, in the slumped shape of airport seats with just few mouthfuls of scalding coffee – but I have fruit from the market and a twisted plastic bag of groundnuts which will last me until the cracked pavements of Nairobi and home.