Dis­patches from Khar­toum: Lol­lipop Diplo­macy and the Muddy Banjo Blues

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - An­drew Ir­win Ep­stein

Ibrought a bag of lol­lipops and a banjo to Su­dan. Need­less to say, at the air­port in Khar­toum on a very hot evening in Jan­uary of 2009, they in­vited the sus­pi­cious cu­rios­ity of the mil­i­tary po­lice bat­tal­ion, dressed in their baby-blue jump­suits that were just a bit too 1970s, a bit too tight in the crotch. I winced as an of­fi­cer strode over with his wedgie. What is THIS? he asked, pre­sent­ing me with the neck of the banjo. I had de­tached the neck from the pot, the drum-like part, so that it all fit into my duf­fel bag. I planned to put it back to­gether and re­string it once I was set­tled in my room, a small but comfy suite in the nicer part of town with a sun­set pa­tio, hot plate, and scream­ing win­dow air con­di­tioner that kept eject­ing its cover in the mid­dle of the night. This was the start of the “year of aban­don­ment” as my chil­dren came to call it. Su­dan was the first leg: a six-week con­sult­ing gig for a large in­ter­na­tional non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that would take me to Dar­fur, Nuba Moun­tains, Blue Nile State, and a few in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons camps near Khar­toum to eval­u­ate an ed­u­ca­tion re­form project. Then, I would head to South Su­dan for an­other nine months, where I would re­sume my ethno­graphic re­search on school­ing and war for my PHD. Mix­ing a lit­tle Ara­bic with some English and wildly over-acted pan­tomimes, I tried to ex­plain the banjo. Baby-blue jump­suit man raised the banjo neck in the air to­ward his bat­tal­ion com­rades as a few perked up from their news­pa­pers and cig­a­rettes. As I pulled the pot out from the bag, he grabbed it sud­denly, lifted both banjo parts above his head, and waved them around as if he was sig­nal­ing in sem­a­phore that sharks lay just be­yond the waves. Ban­jos do that to peo­ple. We stood at a long, stain­less steel ta­ble just be­yond the im­mi­gra­tion desk as more parts of the banjo were ex­tracted from my bag. Ear­lier, the guy at the im­mi­gra­tion desk, pim­ply and armed, had also de­layed me be­cause, after stand­ing up and giving me a full-body once-over, he de­clared the en­trance visa fee had changed from one hun­dred dol­lars to two hun­dred dol­lars. I didn’t bring that much cash, I said. ATM? Next thing I knew, I was be­ing es­corted onto a Kenya Air­ways flight back to Nairobi. That’s when Joseph swept in to save the day. Joseph is Kenyan, looked to be in his late twen­ties, and is clearly in with the KRT bureau-

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