It’s crazy the things you notice, when you’re about to leave them behind.

For me: the look of a sunset absolutely untainted by pollution. The sweet smell of our mountains, instantly recognizable – fresh rain, the cow dung used for mudding walls, and germinating grass. The simple, and unexpected, beauty of a Sudanese girl. The antics of the local boys is more hilarious and endearing that it has ever been. The roughness of a rock when you pull yourself up onto it is more precious.

In the time before I leave this place for good, I spend several hours climbing through the uninhabited rainforest in the mountains near our village. It is sprinkling rain. Mist crawls along the green, dripping slopes and cascades into a jagged ridge near the river. It is enlivening to be soaked and covering ground, moving simply to move. I stop several times to feel the rocks that I am climbing. They’re not like the rocks back home, I think. These are older. They don’t crumble in your hand. You feel the smoothness where others have walked over them a thousand times, and the roughness where they are left to nature.

I climb up over the village from behind. Thorn bushes have drawn blood on my arms, and the exertion of hiking has reopened a metalworking wound on my shin from the North, but it is an enjoyable pain. It is reassuring, to know that I am alive and bleeding and moving around.

I enter the village from above. The highest compound is very scenic. There is a large tree standing several meters over the house in which I perch, watching the old woman who lives there walking back and forth between a fire in the shadow of her grain silo and the jerry cans of water from the pump. The smoke tells me she is cooking something. Delicious freshly ground sorghum and boiled greens from the garden is a likely candidate; this is the staple of many tribespeople in the surrounding area.

Mong, abuba,” I greet her from above.

She doesn’t start, but waves at me dismissively as if she has always known I was there watching. The old women in the village are great women who drink much and after they have drunk, they sit in circles smoking their local tobacco and argue viciously for hours upon end about anything and everything. Even when I can’t understand them, it is hilarious.

Look at you, I think, loving on the old women. Getting sentimental. You haven’t always found their arguing so hilarious, just remember that. But I can’t help it. If only I could have lived each day here like a last day.

I move into the village on the paths. The fences of their compounds, formed with twisting tree branches and split wood that are tied together and driven into the ground, form walls on either side of the path. People greet me through their fences, simple unseen calls of “mong,” which I repeat in greeting. The rocks on the path are slick with rain and cow dung. Cattle tracks clobber the herding route from the cow pens inside the village, down the steep path to the flatlands, where boys will be guarding the cows with their rifles and whistling on flutes that they make out of hardwood.

There are not many in the village today. They are all down in the gardens, tilling soil and scattering seed. They use very long hoes, really more like shovels with oiled wooden handles nine feet long, to shave away the topsoil for planting. You can spot groups of men from afar, the high tips of their hoes dancing up and down over the sorghum stalks in the hot sun. At midday, they will stop to drink their balu, which despite the alcohol content makes them strong again for work, and then they will continue working until around five o’ clock, when they march home to the village in groups of fifteen or twenty. When I am on my runs, straining through the sweat and panting like a dog, they often see me on the road and call after me like fans in a grandstand, hooting and celebrating.

I enter the fuera, the dance area, where they celebrate marriage and mourn death.

Many of my missionary colleagues have said that they feel a dark presence in the dance area. Demons. Spiritual warfare.  I have never felt anything of the sort, at least nothing out of the ordinary. But I have seen vast idiotic drunkenness there, and brutal fighting, sexual misconduct, and entranced, smoking, dust-headed wild men firing automatic weapons into the night air in rage. I find that dark enough.

The fuera is empty today, so I move out of the village on a stone path that winds along the steep mountainside in the overhanging trees. It is still lightly raining, more of a dripping mist.

I come across one of my friends, the father of a boy I have mentored. He is encased in a black plastic poncho that some NGO worker must have given him, with a boonie hat on and carrying two thick wooden poles. His Kalashnikov is at his back, and his machete dangles from his belt. Seeing me, he leans the poles against a tree and greets me.

Hai otu,” I say. The rain has come.

Ai. Lakin olibo to mana.” Yes, but it is good for the gardens.

Tau Akayak?” I ask, referring to his son.

Eno inya to housou beren. Awun to housou.” He is out with the cows.

We shake hands and go on our different ways. Walking comfortably along the wide stones, I decide that he was speaking simply for my benefit, in the same style that he hears me speak. My command of the tribal language is not at all impressive. It’s a miracle that anyone understands anything I say, with my grammar so foul. You had time, I think. Two years to work on language. And you’re sad about it now, in the last days?

I am in the flat land now between the village and the hill where I live, and the rain is harder. Droplets form on the brim of my hat and drip through my peripheral vision into the green as I navigate the underbrush.

Well, that’s the way it is, I think. You live in a place and learn and after a while, you just get used to it. And when you have to leave, you start seeing everything as though they are already memories and you are nostalgic for them.

I will probably remember everything as much, much more fun than it was. Even the malarial weeks spent writhing around in a tent, the rock-breaking, tree-cutting labor, the eternal fights and frustrations of team life, the times where I thought that I would die, or that someone else would die, even the times when someone else did die, will all be coated in a rosy glow. And now I will remember more than ever the trees, rocks, the old women, the fences in the village, Akayak’s father, and the beautiful rain.

I dart under the iron roof of the container house as the downpour comes in driving sheets.

I boil water for coffee on the gas stove, and look up at the village, cast in glistening blue. Oh well, I think, that’s just moving on.

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Someone – an acquaintance from a few years ago – recently emailed me with a pretty heavy question.

Their life had fallen apart to some degree, and they had somehow determined through Facebook that I was someone who had it all together. Hard to blame them. I have an exotic job, a sports car, and I sit around fires made of cash with my hot girlfriend. Well actually, none of those things. I live in a camp tent, bathe very infrequently, and eat herbs. I am, practically speaking, a hobo. So I’m pretty unclear on what they really saw in me, but they asked me what my “secret” was, how I “figured it all out.”

Spoiler alert: they did not like my answer.

They were expecting, I don’t know, the trade secrets of Indiana Jones, and what they got was a load of buckshot to the face about God’s objective truth and a moral call to serve the lowly and evangelize in foreign countries. Okay, it may have been what some irrelevant, out-of-touch good friends of mine would consider “overly long.” I quoted a lot of scripture. I’m pretty sure that one whole paragraph was just the phrase “great commission great commission great commission” repeated for four hundred words. It probably bordered on dogmatic – but it was true. It was my playbook, if ever I had one.

Then, an hour later, my inbox lights up and I open their reply. And sure enough, it’s that cringeworthy stock response that I get almost every time I talk about why I do what I do: “sounds like you’re doing a lot of good over there.”

Now, lest I offend some of my (possibly imaginary) readers, let me say that there are some people who say that abominable catchphrase and mean it sincerely. And while still cringing, I understand and do not judge. But many people, in saying that, are opening up a door into their worldview that they may be completely unaware of. They are, like my acquaintance, revealing their priorities.

I’ve recently come to the conviction that the need is no reason to go into missions. Oh, people go on and on and on about the need, it’s the currency of humanitarianism (actually, currency is the currency of humanitarianism). Kids starving in the slums, sex trade victims, war-torn villages and whatnot. And I’m not being calloused, here; I’ve seen far more of all that than I ever hoped to. But that’s not, should not be, and has never been the reason for missions.

Sure, there are practical arguments for humanitarianism – for humanism – just as there are practical arguments for missionary work. But let’s focus on the philosophy, here, partially because I believe that a moral bottom line is more important than a practical bottom line, but mostly because my laptop just ran out of battery and I can’t frantically Google those practical arguments for missionary work I just mentioned.

I’ll tell you the same thing I told my acquaintance: I’m not in South Sudan because of the people’s great need of clean water and sanitation, or conflict mediation, or medical care. I’m there because of God’s great desire to make Himself more and more gloriously known in the world. Do I help people with their water/conflict/medical issues? Sure, but I don’t divorce it from my true purpose. You see, that’s what humanitarianism is; it’s essentially the humanist version of missions, which makes no sense.

The whole idea of “humanitarianism” is misinformed, because biblically speaking, “humanity,” in the way of describing human kindness, is not really humanity, but divinity in spite of true humanity. That is, our kindness and mercy are not our own. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we have no capacity for good. We do not have “good hearts,” as some prominent theologians would have you believe. “Humanitarian aid” is an oxymoron.

We are to mimic Christ, who is Himself both the ultimate and penultimate missionary, and what do we know about His mission, salvation?

Romans 3 tells us that His purpose was to demonstrate His own righteousness, so that He could be both just and the justifier of people who have faith in Him. To say that this is not our same purpose as human beings is arrogant, humanist, if you will.

So like I said, my acquaintance did not like this idea at all. I guess you could say that it scared them off. I felt bad, at first, about how I handled it. Maybe I should have been more seeker-friendly. You know, invited them to the youth-group run Church Coffee Shop for a friendly round of Christian speed-dating. But then I realized: what people truly need, more than comfort, more than camaraderie, is the truth.

Let us leave tone and delivery at the door, if only to tell the truth.

Image   I wrote nearly one year ago about not being able to hear the voice of God.

My heart and my mind, as I recall, raged to me that I must go north. In fact, having recently (and for the first time) re-read all of my blog musings in one go, I am convinced that the majority of my struggles – the literary conflicts that populate these writings – have all essentially involved my frustration with a perceived divine silence.

Well, I am writing tonight knowing that the all-decisive, illuminating, purpose-giving wisdom from heaven that I have sought for so long is as elusive as ever.

I am sitting on my mattress in the 3-man tent that has been my home for the last 14 months. Among the myriad of accumulated odd-ends inside is an alarm clock set for 6:00, a handwritten letter from a village chief across the mountains, a stack of books, a dumbell, my Bug-Out-Bag (essential items prepacked, in case of a hasty security-related departure), a few candles to read by, my Maasai blanket, and a rifle.

My tent is on the top of our hill, hidden in the tall grass and underneath a collection of hardwood trees, invisible to flyovers or people looking this way from the village. I have discovered many a puff adder and scorpion idling in the brush nearby, but the cool breeze that blows at night out of the flatlands makes the location worthwhile, for me.

I can hear dancing up in the village, the feverish chanting and drumming punctuated by frequent bursts of celebratory machine-gun fire. Each shot pops loudly and echoes in the recedes of the mountains. They are dancing to remember. That is what they do. Their ceremonies – weddings, funerals, and everything in between – are elaborate rememberings of whatever came before, undecipherable to me because I am from outside.

Inside a carbon-fiber hard case beside my mattress lie the fifteen or so spiral-bound notebooks that contain my experiences, complaints, dilemmas, solutions, and observations from the past year. Many unfinished, ideologically charged blog posts-to-be can be found there, along with notes taken on books I have read, language recordings, sermon outlines, maps of the mountain range, and the abandoned beginnings of two novels about endangered aid workers in the Sudan.

The tribesmen dance to remember. I write.

I am writing now to freeze this moment in time. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads this; if its only purpose is gathering dust in my hard case beside pages upon pages of terrible fiction intros, it will still have served to help me remember today, from wherever I am then.

Where will I be one year from now? Perhaps if I had received that incredible divine clarity I’m always asking for, I could tell you. But I have no idea. I could be dead on the side of the road somewhere in Puntland, or in Army boot camp back stateside, or studying in university. I could be in Europe on a train, or in Bakersfield, California working at a McDonald’s. I could be here, in this tent, in one year from now.

The truth is, I’m dying to know, to just have any inkling of where God wants to take me.

But if I knew, would I really be trusting God? Would not my own self-sufficiency, determination, hard work, and foreknowledge become a proxy for my trust in God?

Now, there is nothing wrong with self-sufficiency, determination, hard work, and foreknowledge – far from it. I seek after such things earnestly. But to worship them at the altar of the West, to allow college and career to shape my destiny rather than allowing a pure trust in God to shape my destiny is to see my plans become my god. I cannot allow that.

But then, how to live? And when to be proactive, when to bide time? How to go about pursuing goals, especially ones worthy but unattainable?

Don’t ask me.

There is a simplicity – call it innocence, or naivety – in trust. It’s embarassing, frankly, because to admit to being simple, innocent, or naive in anything goes against my entire nature. Maybe this writing has unearthed more of a confession than I originally intended, but in this business of planning, questioning, and trusting, I think I am telling the truth.

And so, sitting here with a spiral-bound notebook on my lap, with moths fluttering around my lamp from outside the fabric of my tent, I come to some kind of conclusion. I will continue to ask for that burning, acid clarity from above, and maybe, when I truly need it, it will come.

But for now, I will remember and I will trust.

Image

Debacle.

That’s the word I’d use. It has a certain ethos. Something so simultaneously glamorous and ridiculous that you can’t help but blog about it.

I remember the first time I heard about the “One Day Without Shoes” campaign that Toms Shoes championed a few years ago. If I hadn’t been living in Kenya at the time, I guess I might have been more sympathetic to the concept: there are people out there without shoes, so we won’t wear shoes either. Your basic solidarity campaign. The Toms website explained itself by saying that “curiosity leads to conversation, leads to action, leads to change.” But for me, the disconnect came where they presumed that conversation actually led to action. I also entertained the idea that curiosity might only lead to disgust at all the barefoot hipsters walking around that day, and actually prevent conversation. It was hard for me to get caught up in the white guilt when I knew kids in Kibera (arguably the largest slum on the continent) who had whole shelves of shoes they’d been donated, none of which fit.

So when the KONY 2012 video started floating around a few days ago, I was a little wary.

As someone who lives in the exact area where the Lord’s Resistance Army carries out their horrifying modus operandi of recruitment through terror, something struck me about the way that our friends at Invisible Children were able to drum up these mass amount of support. It is being treated like a solidarity campaign.  (Like us on facebook! Send donations! Bring the children home!)

But here on the ground, this looks very, very different to other campaigns.

A number of sources (most notably Charity Navigator and Foreign Affairs magazine) have pointed out that Invisible Children Inc’s financial spending habits are less than exemplary. In fact, it’s quite plain that a large portion of LRA-related donations are channeled directly into the national militias who are fighting them. If you’re not scared by that, then you obviously haven’t researched the DR Congolese military, the UPDF in Uganda, and our very own SPLA fighters here in South Sudan. These are the people who Invisible Children and plenty of NGOs like them are supporting, and I’m here to tell you, they are not very nice people.

I’ll use the example of the Equatorial Defense Force (EDF), since I know it through-and-through enough to explain it somewhat simply. The EDF was a group of rebellious SPLA soldiers who were tasked themselves with defending our Eastern and Western Equatorial States against internal and external conflict. One of their shining moments, according to the press, was their participation in the defense of a village called Moti against LRA raiders in 2004. I’ve been to Moti. Just a small, one-lane dirt road running through a few mud huts. Nothing special. But the EDF were there, and they gallantly repelled the invaders, outshining their competitors in the SPLA and proving their worth to the citizens of Equatorial South Sudan. But not really.

When you mention the letters EDF in the village where I live, not at all far from Moti, you get laughter. EDF? you hear, Equatorial Defense Force? When did they ever defend us? And then you hear about how EDF and LRA soldiers came together as soon as the cameras looked away, conducting joint raids on Equatorial targets. Raping, raiding cattle, the usual. EDF, they laugh, and then they adopt a conspiratorial grimace and tell you about how there are still LRA sympathizers among the former EDF commanders who have since re-merged with the SPLA. If you ask where, they tell you Torit. They’re in Torit.

The LRA enjoys the sympathy of all sides.

Their enemies, their allies, and all the people in between have to give in or give up. And as sad as it is to say, the organizations, individuals, military units, and tribal leaders who are supported by the fundraising efforts of NGOs like Invisible Children are definitely among the ranks of those who are forced, in one way or another, to sympathise with the LRA.

This is different to other campaigns because in other campaigns, you give your money, and white people show up in Kibera and hand out shoes. In this campaign, you give your money, and corrupt African national militias get new uniforms, cigarettes, and assault rifles. Make no mistake – in this campaign, you are part of a war effort.

But while this may come as news to some of you, it is also not necessarily a bad thing when executed in a responsible way. Because a war effort is exactly what it will take to disrupt LRA operations and kill Joseph Kony.

The M.O. of the Lord’s Resistance Army is predicated on a volatile mix of fantatic tribalism, mercenary values, and a brutal methodology of warfare. They began in the same way that many Southern Sudanese rebel groups have begun: out of spite. Just as the tribal divisions in the SPLA/M have led to the emergence of the David Yau Yau, Athor Deng, and Gatluk Gai defections in South Sudan, so did the marginalization of Acholi men in the Ugandan Army lead to the defection of Kony and his men.

The difference, and perhaps the reason why the LRA has stayed independent for so long without coming to terms, is that Kony didn’t really care about the all the twisted religious iconography that he used to gain power. Typically, when a splinter group defects from a national militia, they will fight as sustainably as possible until they are offered terms, and then they will decide whether said terms are considered a victory or would, in the other case, warrant continued fighting. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “the conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla army wins if it does not lose.”

But the LRA has never in more than 10 years of independent fighting reached terms with any of the four governments who have tried, and this is because with the size and reputation of his fighting force, Kony always stood to make more money as a mercenary than as a reinstated officer of the Ugandan Army or as a protected citizen of any country. Bureaucracy was out the window, and when the rest of the world realized this, they collectively decided to take him out. But 2007’s Operation Lightning Thunder, which was a joint operation between the armies of DRC, Uganda, and South Sudan and was logistically supported by unnamed US intelligence agencies (but need we really name them?), failed to eradicate the group, which had recuperated enough to begin retaliatory strikes within several weeks. Just a year before, a US-trained Guatemalan hit squad was sent in to assassinate Kony, and was brutally murdered. Rather melodramatic reports suggest that Kony actually displayed the mission commander’s head on a stick in local villages.

In an essay published by the South African Institute for Security Studies which compared the operations of the LRA to those of Somalia’s Al-Shabab, it is said that the “elusive guerilla fighters have exploited to their advantage the shortcomings of state security forces and the constraints of international efforts to respond to unconventional wars, partly because of their costly nature.”

Okay. That’s a lot of technical back-and-forth, but what am I really saying, here?

I’m saying that clicking “like” on facebook doesn’t cut it. Generating publicity doesn’t cut it. “Let’s make Kony famous,” they say, and even though he’s been infamous for ten years among those of us unfortunate enough to see his handiwork in person, he’s now infamous across the globe. And let’s face it, President Obama isn’t exactly going to check his facebook this morning and go, “woah, I better get on this guy,” and sign off on a new offensive. Nevertheless…

I get it.

The Invisible Children campaign gives people in donor countries something to do. Those who don’t want to sit around reading about how impossible it is to change Africa can opt to spread the bad news and, as it goes, conversation leads to action.

But I would argue that if it does in fact lead to action, it leads to misguided action. This war, quite apparently, cannot be won by donating money to the very national militias who have been interacting with the LRA for more than a decade. There is simply no sense in that.

But for those of you who aren’t here, who aren’t able to talk to survivors, bandage wounds, and drive supplies, there are still a number of ways to help. Be warned. These are going to sound a little scary.

1.)    Support US policymakers with aggressive foreign intervention policies.

If there will be any successful force deployed against the LRA*, it will be in the form of a counter insurgency. Yeah, those two words you hear on the news all the time, referring to our operations in Iraq and Afganistan. Now, the LRA isn’t even comparable to the Taliban, but what I’m saying is, you can’t attack politicians for intervening in the Middle East while you’re also marching on Washington to demand the assassination of Kony. I was rather dismayed by the statements of presidential doubtful Ron Paul in the recent Republican National Security Debate, who advocated both a radical reduction in foreign aid monies and a shift away from interventionist policies. I wonder what he plans to do a decade after America has pulled completely out of terrorist breeding grounds like Somalia and Sudan. 

2.)    Support the use of unconventional warfare techniques.

The LRA, you see, do not wear uniforms. They don’t march in straight lines. And they do not respect international borders. They are guerilla fighters, and just as morally ambiguous tactics have been employed in the war in Iraq, they must find new employment in any successful operations to disrupt LRA activities. Finding, tracking, and eliminating LRA officers is much easier said than done, especially when your enemy takes the form of a twelve-year-old boy suddenly aiming a Kalashnikov at you out of his doorway. The Invisible Children campaign makes it sound as if these children must simply be freed, and they will lay down arms and run home to their parents. But the truth is that they are enemy combatants; for many of them, going home is out of the question. 

3.)    Support NGO watchdogs who monitor spending and track financial donations.

This is perhaps the single most important way in which donors can contribute towards a responsible and effective campaign against the LRA. Money is why Kony exists, and money is what keeps him going. Let’s do our absolute best to ensure that our donations are fighting him, not drifting out into “contractor limbo,” as we sometimes call it when an NGO’s untied funds are burned up by bumbling local sub-contractors.

And there you have it.

The internet publicity stunt is surely coming to an end, and the just fervor of the world’s reddit users will surely die down in the next few days. But will there be lasting change? Or will more and more useless money continue to pour into the same broken machines that have failed to bring justice to this evil man for over a decade?

Let’s find out.

* It is worth noting that there are around 100 US Special Forces operators currently here on the ground, hunting the LRA with a slow-burning approach that mixes community building and active tracking of LRA commanders, where possible. I found it interesting that the KONY 2012 campaign focused largely on Uganda, when in fact several of my coworkers from another organization met up with one squad of Special Forces guys in Central African Republic about a month ago. This, among several other independently confirmed sources would indicate that the LRA is not even in Uganda at the moment.

The long legged, skinny dark boys are playing football on the airstrip.

The track team is warming up.

There is a group of maybe fifty young men who come every evening to the large airstrip in Torit, and they come in their shorts and jerseys and they play. I can hear them yelling at each other. On one side of the airstrip, the wide end where the white helicopters and blue and red-striped planes power down and unload their passengers every week, half of the boys are playing their game of football. I can see them through the chain link fence topped with barbed wire, through the welded angle iron painted red with oxide. One of the boys is running too fast. He slams into another player, and tumbles far too theatrically over himself and plows face-first into the hard packed rocky soil, feigning the drama of a Champions League match. No whistle is called for there is no referee, and as the game continues, the boy rolls onto his back where he is more comfortable and puts one knee into the air. He makes a pillow with the crook of his arm and plucks a stem of grass and puts it between his teeth. He lies relaxing in the middle of the playing field and eyes the game.

One hundred meters down the airstrip, the track team is lining up. They are wearing uniforms; they are white and red jerseys with no names and no numbers, and red shorts. Some of them have cleats, some of them sneakers, some of them are barefoot or wearing sandals. They take their marks, hands to the pebbled ground and heads down. They are thin-armed, tall boys with very serious faces. Their faces say things, speaking to the air and the trees, and especially to the cursed ground they crouch against, waiting. Their faces say that they want something to fight. They are training tonight, but I do not know why they meet or who they run against.

There are purple clouds and a pink sky and an orange sun hanging over Torit tonight. Through the misted distance there are tall jagged mountains jutting forth from the earth. I imagine this land so long ago, maybe billions of years ago, a flat wet green place with no clouds. And I imagine God speaking in a voice galaxies deep, booming into the world, “let there be heights,” and I imagine these tremendous minarets and cliffs of stone lifting themselves into the sky, bits of mud and tangled root set aflight at the swift alteration, a million birds shaken from their perch, the sound and sensation of the ripped earth and the voice of God.

The voice of God.

Can it be so quiet that I cannot hear it? Or are my mind and my heart raging too loudly? This is a rhetorical question and I cannot answer it.

Torit is a small place and at the same time, it is a large place. It is the second-largest place in South Sudan, and at the same time it is no larger than the neighborhood where my family lives in one suburb of Bakersfield, California. Torit is a sloppy assemblage of steel roof houses, bamboo fences, perpedicular twisting dirt roads, hazardously small market stalls, government offices, nightclubs, two fuel stations (both currently empty of any sort of fuel), several churches and a mosque. On the roads drive more NGO-branded vehicles than you can imagine. The United Nations represent a larger percentage than most, with their simple white and black UN Land Cruisers, their UNDP-Sudan and UNHCR and UNICEF Prados, their three-axle food distribution lorries and their old Hilux beaters. There are WFP MAN trucks everywhere carrying painted red drums in the bed. There are more white Land Cruisers than I can process, with huge swinging CB attenae and bull-bars and oversized stickers from Care, Caritas, CHF, Medicins sans Frontieres, IRC, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Vision. They all have one sticker on the back windows. It is a little round sticker with the black sillhouette of a Kalashnikov rifle on it, inside a red circle, with a little red line crossing it. They are telling us that they do not carry guns.

There are UN helicopters, massive helicopters with two rotors that buzz the skies hauling food and medicine in underbelly slings. Today in the market I saw a 175cc motorbike with a special NGO license plate and a Merlin decal on the fuel tank, and it also had a no-guns sticker, as if you couldn’t tell whether the rider had an AK-47 strapped across his back while he was riding through town or not.

The blue-helmets are out in force. These are the international soldiers in gaudy green camouflage and powder blue berets parading the market in pairs. They wear German flags and American flags and sometimes even the UK and Brasilian flags on their sleeves. They hold rifles and walk around and joke with each other.

The restaurants are simple and decayed. They cook only one or two meals and they cook them for breakfast and lunch and dinner. Daniel and I have been going to one restaurant where we eat every night a meal of chicken, naan, and chick pea sauce that costs us fifteen or twenty pounds. There is always the hum of mantric sitar music playing in the back rooms and the overwhelming din of Al Jazeera Arabic blasting from a television overhead. The choppy images of Syrian violence light up the small dark room, which is full with Kenyans and Somalis and Arabs and Sudanese. They write receipts in Arabic, but Daniel lived for one year in Cairo and he can read them without much difficulty. When we finish our chicken and flop back against our plastic chairs contentedly, a trio of haggard, starving boys dart past and grab as many soggy chicken bones and globs of sauce as possible. The waitress chases them away with her shouted threats of abuse. I look at our table, upset and strewn with scattered food, and I feel an irrational disdain for these boys. Are the NGOs not responsible for them? Is Save the Children not saving the children?

I often talk with Daniel about going north. My mind and my heart rage to me that I must go north. Perhaps my youth deceives me. I feel at all times a strong feral desire to be amongst the elements of war, where there is death and struggle all around and an ever stronger need for level-minded mediators. These are places that I have only heard about and seen on BBC. There are the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, Unity State. These are places tortured by centuries-old conflict, steeped in cathartic violence. There are Northern Antanovs that bomb the schools and churches, and rebel movements that war with the governments and against each other with Kalashnikovs and RPGs and hand grenades. They capture enemy soldiers and torture and kill them. They have never heard of the place called Geneva or any of it’s conventions. They possess that which is desired by the track runners that are crouching on the airstrip in Torit. They have something to fight.

Perhaps it is my naivety that pulls me there, but who am I to resist? Who am I to be ashamed of my youth? There is a certain danger in talking like this. People who hear me talk are often critical of my desires. They will tell me that war is not a story, or that war is disgusting and that I should never wish to be a part of it, any part of it. They will tell me that the sense of heroism and duty, grime and dust that is found in war movies is highly glamourized. They speak of these things as if they have had some kind of profound personal experience with them. They don’t realize that they are as naive to war as I am, only in a different and more fearful way.

There is a high buzzing in the sky.

It is too whining to be a Caravan. As it winds down towards the airstrip, I can see it is a white and blue 206. This means that it belongs to AIM, and that there are missionaries aboard. And this is interesting, because I have been hearing about the widespread presence of young, cute American girls who join AIM as missionaries in Southern Sudan. I mention this as an aside to Daniel, whose eyes immediately light up and he suggests that we walk out and meet the plane as it refuels. I put on my sunglasses and we crawl through a hole in the chain link fence and go to investigate.

The football players are scattering.

The track team breaks in the middle of a 400-yard dash and sprints in all directions away from the path of the landing aircraft. Dust billows in a tilted tornado behind the Cessna as it plows across the airstrip and slows to a halt. It rocks in it’s own tailwind and the engine cuts off and the pilot’s door swings wide open. The athan, the Muslim call to prayer, rings out over the tin rooves and across the sunlit orange soil that fades as the light begins to disappear. Allah hu akbar, wails the singer through his microphone and through the loudspeakers on the mosque’s minarets and out into the township full of lazy people. God is great, he sings, and at that moment I find myself able to agree with him. I am excited, because there are indeed females sitting in the rear seats of the plane’s fuselage, and I am a male, and this is exciting. But as they hop out, I realize that I know them – they are missionaries from another mountain village in South Sudan – and that their husbands are with them. The exitement dissipates and I retire myself to helping the pilot refuel.

One of the husbands, a writer who we’ll call John, walks over and shakes my hand. “How ya doin’ these days?” He asks me.

I shrug.

“Whatcha doin’ in Torit?” Says John again.

“We came to get petrol and diesel,” I mutter, “but there’s none in town. So while we were waiting, our clutch housing broke, so now we’re waiting to fix it. It was supposed to be a one-night stay.”

“Well, that’s Africa,” he says, squinting against the sun and scratching his beard.

“It’s pretty frustrating, actually,” I continue, “because we used the sat phone to SMS our boss to ask if we should stay and wait or come back, but no-one’s replying. I’m just not exactly sure where I’m supposed to be.”

John looks at me, somehow knowing that I am speaking deeper truths about myself than I intended to, and after thinking and scratching his beard for another moment he clears his throat and says, “I’m sure your boss trusts you to do the right thing.”

The pilot finishes refueling and the passengers pack themselves inside again and the engine revs to life and then they are gone. I sit to myself, the wind blowing across the airstrip as a twilight green settles on the little town of Torit, and my heart and my mind rage to me that I must go north.

David and Goliath.

Everyone knows the story:  a small, verbally abused Asparagus Boy goes up against a large warted pickle reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in a surprising turn of events (as vegetable fight scenes go), the little herbaceous perennial is victorious! He spouts off in a pre-puberty squeak that “with God, little people can do big things too!” High five, freeze, fade to black.

Except not.

Growing up on Veggie Tales (which is, for the record, an excellent program for young children and vegans), you come to think of this classic bible story as something like a harmless preschool showdown. But if kids really knew what David was getting himself into, they’d more likely shit their diapers in reverence at his absolute badassery than point at the screen and coo.

When we examine the real story, in context, we find ourselves looking at an element of God’s glory that is almost completely ignored in Christianity today (and probably the magazine, as well).

1 Samuel 17.

This is one hell of an epic battle scene. The Israeli King Saul, staring across a valley at the Philistine army on the opposing mountain, plotting his strategy and counting his dead, makes William Wallace and Maximus look like a couple of hand-lotion-toting Justin Bieber fans in comparison.

Apparently, it was common practice for the Philistines to host a Gladiator-style duel to the death between the most accomplished killers of each army. Archeologists and other confusingly-named experts posit that in the Philistine culture, this showdown was of religious significance, and that a champion’s victory was considered a sign of approval and favor from their gods. Personally, I think they just realized how badass assassin battles can be, thousands of years before the rest of us figured it out with the Bourne movies.

So out steps the most bitchin’ warrior prince you’ve ever seen. “He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail. The weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze.” That’s nearly 200 lbs. Oh, and he’s also armed with what experts believe was the Philistine equivalent of the Egyptian Khopesh (sickle-sword), which was more closely related to a battle-axe than a traditional sword. Yes, you read that properly. Goliath had a freaking battle axe.

And just like Steve Jobs during the last five minutes of an Apple Keynote Address, the Bible says, “Oh, and one more thing…” BAM! He’s nine feet tall! Imagine Yao Ming auditioning for the Scorpion King, and you’ve probably got a pretty accurate mental image.

Then, stepping out into the dusty space between the two armies, this SO-not-a-pickle cried out, “Why have you come out to line up for battle? … Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”

And the Scorpion King wasn’t done. “I defy the armies of Israel this day; bring me a man, that we may fight together.”

This, according to the Bible, was a major “holy crap!” moment for Saul and Co. Imagine if a battalion of American soldiers was holed up in one building, and across the street, an entire apartment complex full of armed insurgents, and then suddenly, one of the terrorists steps into the road and yells, “come on, take me, you little schoolgirls! Little pigtails! Little stockings! Come on!” That’s what this was like.

As a reward for whoever was brave enough to face the Philistine champion, Saul offered “great riches… his daughter… and tax exemption” for the man’s entire family. It makes you wonder if we’re REALLY trying to kill Osama Bin Laden.

In the middle of all this, David shows up.

He is described by the author simply as “a youth,” so we can infer – based on the Jew’s contextual definition of manhood – that he was probably 18 or younger. So we’ve got a high-school junior jogging through a very disturbed Israelite soldiers’ camp, lugging (according to the Bible) some cheese and Ritz Crackers for his older brothers, who were fighters stationed in the battlefield.

The King’s aide is walking around the Israelite camp.

“Uh, any champions around here? What about you, Steve, you look like you could dunk without jumping — what? You’ve got a rare blood disorder? Why are you on an ancient battlefield?! …  Hey Ling-Cho, you know how to fight with nunchuks and twin bladed boomerangs at the same time, right? What’s that, you’ve got a cold?”

David’s already heard what that bastard Philistine said about his nation. And he’s red in the face. So while all his brothers and their fellow warriors are pissing their pants, the gouda-toting teenager openly volunteers to march down there and take the son of a bitch ON.

Meanwhile…

Out of all the Israelite soldiers and officials, every single assassin and accomplished killer found an excuse to not go head-to-head with the freaking Klingon Warrior down in the valley. The Bible says that when “Saul and all Israel” heard Goliath delivering his villainous speech like Lex Luthor, “they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”

But, hey, Saul’s a reasonable guy, right? He’s not gonna pressure any of his loyal soldiers into doing something they’re not comfortable with… come on, he’s not cruel or anythi– SEND IN THE SHEPARD CHILD!

Saul, in an unparalleled gesture of humanity and generosity, offers to let the small boy who he’s sending on a suicide mission wear the King’s own armor to his death. So David tries on what’s probably the most expensive and sturdily-made suit of armor in the nation… and says, “dude, I feel like the Iron Giant here. Forget it, I’ve got a slingshot, I’ll be fine.”

He then briefly mentions his past exploits as a happy young shepard boy living with his father. Exploits like skipping through the fields, humming merrily, writing experimental poetry about nature, and also occasionally killing lions and bears with his bare hands. Yes. The high-school junior says furiously, to his older brothers, the best fighters in his nation, and the commander-in-chief of all the armies of Israel, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine [sweet, bring up the penis, David — always…], that he should defy the armies of the living God?!”

At this point, Saul, coming to his senses, protests that David is “not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are a youth, and he has been a man of war from his own youth.”

David then brings up the fact that whenever a “lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from it’s mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by it’s beard, and struck it and killed it.” Yep. Every animal has a fatal flaw. For lions and bears, it’s always the beard.

So, confident that the young boy had successfully dismembered multiple vicious, attacking animals in the recent past, Saul announced that he was indeed fit to destroy a nine-foot armored warrior with a slingshot. It’s worth noting that Saul may have been having some mental issues, which David, much to his credit, actually compounded by being so badass that the people of Israel loved him more than their own king. But now I’m just getting ahead of myself.

In what must have been the most awe inspiring pre-battle preparation montage ever, David grabs his slingshot and heads to the riverbed for ammunition. It’s not mentioned in the Bible, but it’s not such a stretch to assume that the nearest riverbed was in the “valley” between the two hills where the opposing armies resided. In other words, David may have trotted right down to where Goliath was standing, looked him up and down, and then bent down and picked up “five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the shepard’s bag, in a pouch which he had.”

So. The Showdown.

Goliath, outfitted in his Scorpion King armor and towering over his shield-bearer (who still probably knew more about fighting than most aging dojo instructors with grey ponytails and self-published books about utilizing your inner chi), decided that instead of simply hurling his javelin at the the small boy messing around with river stones, he would launch into another movie-villain speech. The guy was a real talker.

“Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks? … Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

David responds with possibly the most badass statement ever conceived by someone who’d just cleared puberty last month. “You come at me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.”

That it may be known that there is a God in Israel.

That’s the key. That’s why David is doing this. For the Glory of God. This terminology is usually associated with worship music, V-necks with vests and faux-hawks, and Chipotle after church. But here, and in so much of the Old Testament, we see the Glory of God directly paired with violence, aggression, determination, and VICTORY. Interesting.

So then, presumably screaming Bruce Willis’ Die Hard line of “yippee-ki-yay, mother-youknowtherest!,” David ran towards the giant, put a river stone in his slingshot, and nailed the guy between the eyes.

Now, it’s pretty likely that a fist-sized stone, however well-aimed, didn’t outright kill the nine-foot champion wearing the bronze battle helmet. So, not having a sword on him at the time, David took Goliath’s ancient battle axe off his dazed and horizontal body, swung the thing high, and chopped off his enemy’s freaking head.

Have you, theoretical reader, ever slaughtered an animal? Have you sliced through the neck of a goat, blood washing over your forearm, holding it down as hard as you can while it struggles and bleats? What about a chicken? Much less intimidating. Still: blood and guts, warm sticky stuff all over your hand, flapping wings and weird smells. Let’s take it down another notch. Have you ever dissected a frog in science class? These days, they’re doing things like tape worms. No eyes or throats or blood. Were you happy to cut up those nicely prepared pre-killed animals?

Now – imagine David lifting that battle axe. The thing probably weighed more than some of us can bench-press today, but the shepard boy was used to heavy things. It takes a lot of determination, a lot of courage, to kill and skin a goat. Now, to plunge that axe into a huge, human body and cut off that head. Courage. Manhood. No turtlenecks or soft, sweet choirboy harmonies here.

He whacked and whacked, and finally cut the head off of Goliath. He’s breathing hard. Wipes a bit of spittle off his chin with bloody hands. He tosses the helmet aside, specks of red flitting across the dusty riverbed, and grabs the head of his enemy. Eyes rolled back. Gristle hanging from the neck. The thing weighs a solid 20 lbs, hair and all.

He holds it up, VICTORIOUS. Up on the hill, the nation of Israel roars.

This is the Glory of God.

Where did we lose that, men? Where did our sense of aggression, vengeance, our holy fire go? We always sit in the pew and say, “we’re in a battle,” but what we really mean is, “flowers! Unicorns! Marshmellows, yayyy!” We like our comfort, our home countries, our various ministries that are acceptably separate from our normal lives. We don’t get it. Battles aren’t won by being soft; there is no victory if you’re afraid to get your hands dirty.

Like David, the “man after God’s own heart,” we need to volunteer, pick our weapons, and get the hell out on that battlefield. Because the Glory of God is not found in complacency.

Read the Bible, get your orders, and go. Become a foreign missionary, give up your plans for education and give that money to someone who’s struggling, move into ministry full-time, be the boyfriend/fiance/husband that God calls you to be, take the job, turn the job down, give something up, take something on; step out of your comfort zone – whatever it is –  and get something done.

The Glory of God is not reserved for your bedroom. It is not only found in your quiet time.

It is not only in boot camp, it’s in battle.

With a start, the old Mercedes engine buzzed to life. I removed my sunglasses, wiped the dripping sweat from my forehead, and then put them on again. A muscled, low-hanging heat rippled off desert stones, curling between the underbrush, through the vicious thorns of scattered acacia, and up into a cloudless, bleached sky. The north Kenyan border post, ten minutes outside of Lokichogio, Kenya, was less impressive than I had expected; it was composed entirely of five termite-eaten shacks resting beside the “road,” and five or so lazy, lanky men chewing something and cradling machine guns. A crop of powerfully tall, forest-dusted mountains sloped up to the east. To the west was a long shock of flat, hot desert. Between the two ran a perilously unkempt trail, to be attempted only by vehicles with four-wheel drive, that spanned the 60-kilometer stretch of befittingly named “No Man’s Land.” This road, the only legal route between the moderately stable country of Kenya and the bleak war zone of Sudan, is notorious. Hijackers, terrorists, rogue militias, and any other kind of gun-toting troublemakers imaginable have been spotted, rumored, or (least likely) caught on this road. Only two weeks earlier, an armed military transport driving between Loki and Nadapal was hit by a RPG from somewhere on the mountainside, killing several soldiers and sending another handful to hospitals in Nairobi with serious injuries. It was an incident of the sort you won’t hear about on the news.

Despite it’s reputation as a war-torn desert hell (and in fact, because of it), Sudan is one of the most expensive countries on the continent. The invasion of foreign aid organizations, NGOs, and development contractors – inevitably led by the UN and the World Food Program – has driven prices up exponentially, while for the majority of the Sudanese, doing nothing to boost wages. When some cheap clinic is being built as a European Union initiative or a Medicines Sans Frontiers project, they will often hire local labor at outlandishly high prices. Even the presence of these organizations alone is enough to skew a local, regional, or national economy; when a vast troop of hungry, dirty, bored Westerners move into your town, you naturally charge three or four times the rate for food, water, and luxuries. Walk into a Sudanese town today and ask how much it will cost you to park in the rocky, unmaintained, piece-of-shit carpark, and someone will tell you, “One hundred dollars.” Of course, you’ll be able to argue it down, but peacemongers like the UN are more than happy to oblige the poor, desperate savages. Be it for the sake of “charity,” or born out of pure laziness, this bizarre form of management has transformed the Sudanese society into one that, quintessentially, cannot comprehend the value of money. So when a military truck is attacked along the main road connecting South Sudan with cheaper, cleaner Kenyan goods, it is important that no-one see it on their evening news.

“Okay,” said Daniel offhandedly from behind the wheel, “ready?”

“Ready as you can be.”

Daniel chuckled, and gave the 300 GD a dose of diesel. After a few quick revs for morale, we were off. The bush passed us slowly, heavily-thorned branches thwacking loudly against the vehicle’s doors, competing with the soft grinding of all-terrain tires on dusty ground and the cacophony of an old clutch and a weak engine tackling the dips and rises of the African soil. I peered cautiously out the window, eyes glued to the nearby hillside, contemplating the fact that we were definitely within firing range for rifles, and that the thick bristle of shrubs and small trees could easily hide anyone staring down on our small, slow, bright blue vehicle crawling desperately through the powdery beige wasteland. Both of us were silent in the car, our heartbeats a few BPM faster than usual, although Daniel had the challenging road to occupy his mind. I wondered what it would be like to suddenly hear the peppered clack of automatic gunfire hitting the car, to see shattered glass and feel helpless, yelling at Daniel to drive, dammit, and then realizing that you literally cannot drive any faster on such a road, turning up to the hillside, perhaps spotting the glint of sun on gunmetal, and being completely unable to stop some 20-year-old Taposa runaway from gleefully testing his newest and most deadly toy. It occurred to me that, for all my apprehension and sensationalism on the dangers of pickpockets and robbers in Nairobi, I had never been in a situation where I could conceivably meet a violent death at any moment, until now.

I cracked a terrible joke to relieve the tension.

As our laughter died, the edge fell from my unease. If God chose to take me in such a simple, violent way, it would befit me. I would much rather die in an ambush doing missionary work in Africa than suffer a coronary while reading a math textbook in Long Beach. Whatever happens, happens.

Despite my wildest fears, no creeping RPG contrails traced after us from the hillsides, no muzzle flashes warned us of a bloody fate, and our car did not tear itself apart on the ditch-laden road to the border post. We breathed a sigh of relief when, across a dry riverbed and over an expanse of desert road, a barbed wire fence appeared and behind it, the Sudanese border town of Nadapal.

If I am blacklisted and deported for what I am about to say regarding the Sudanese border officials, it is a price I am willing to pay to expose their absolute bastardry. After being told to unpack and repack every ounce of our terrifically overloaded vehicle, we were directed to Customs. These gentlemen, seeing two watch-wearing, passport-toting wazungu traipse into their office and hand out a bundle of oft-copied paperwork from Nairobi, decided that they wanted a payday. It took more than 2 hours fielding the most ridiculous excuses conceivable as to why our church-sponsored tax exemption pass was invalid for us to get to the point: “you may pay the required fee now, or we will confiscate your vehicle until you do.” A smartly-uniformed guard posed in the doorway with one of the Chinese-built AK-47s to reinforce the demand.

“Okay,” said Daniel hesitantly, “what’s the required fee?”

“That would be – one minute, sir…” Tapping at a calculator longer than necessary. “That would be seven hundred dollars, sir.”

“Shit,” I said, before realizing that I had spoken aloud, “Dollars? Like, US dollars?”

“Yes, sir.” A wide, crooked smile.

It is typical for church workers to simply get waved through the border, sans payment, sans hassle. Even in a much larger lorry, truck drivers didn’t experience much hassle back then, although by the time of this writing the route has changed due to increased imaginary “fees” at the Nadapal border. I looked at Daniel and he looked at me, and we stepped outside to cool ourselves off before we could go all Michael Bay on their asses with a barrel of diesel and a cigarette. We gathered our collected funds, both personal and for business, and found that together we had about $715 USD. Great.

At the time, I thought it understandable that the border officials would act so self-seekingly. It was wrong, of course, but understandable. But four months later, perusing the open-air market of Torit in Southern Sudan just before the 2011 Referendum Vote, a friend of mine mentioned the unsustainably high prices of the goods offered even there, in the poorest part of town. I asked him why two trays of almost-rotten eggs would, here, cost twice their original Kenyan price. He shook his head and quipped that “these fucking border officials don’t give a shit about their country or their families, that’s why. The trucks coming from Kenya with eggs and stuff get charged more and more each time, and come on, the shipping companies have no problems raising their own costs to cover that, and neither do their suppliers. It’s a vicious cycle. Keeps getting more and more expensive, and who pays?” He nodded at some dirty-looking schoolgirls sifting through an expensive pile of bad tomatoes. “Their own people, that’s fucking who.”

As soon as we were free, we immediately stomped across main street, bought two cold cokes with half of our remaining funds, and sat in plastic chairs cussing horrifically for around half an hour. At long last, feeling very much cleansed by the cathartic hurling of curses at people not present, I drained my coke, looked at my watch, and said, “well, onwards and upwards.”

It was a rocky, bone-numbing two hours to Kapoeta, the small town where we stopped briefly for lunch. The sun was hot, the ground hotter, and even the breeze was a sweltering warmth as it blew dust across the wide main street; it was that hour of day when all movement has ceased. Everyone was sitting in as much shade as they could manage, motionless on a chair or under a tree, spitting into the dirt and watching our shamefully colorful car navigate a ditch in low gear and U-turn into the shade beside a restaurant. We half-stumbled out of the Benz, one arm burnt, mouths pasty with dust, squinting against the whiteout sun and groaning at the bone-bruised ache that seemed to radiate all over our bodies. Daniel knew a place to eat, so we sat down in a shaded booth that smelled more than a little like sewage and ordered Cokes and chapati, an African tortilla of sorts.

Daniel excused himself to wash his hands, and I had barely swallowed that first, glorious sip of cold Coke when someone said “Hello” in an American accent behind me. I turned around and saw a tall, black-haired guy with wire glasses and some kind of khaki safari clothes on. Stubble. White Land Cruiser behind him, parked beside our church Benz, with an African driver sleeping behind the wheel. Medicines Sans Frontiers logo on the door.

“Hi,” I said, and extended my hand, “I’m Clay. You want to sit?”

“Sure, sure,” he said, shaking my hand without offering his name. He pulled a chair over and lit a cigarette.

I swallowed another slug of soda. “What part of the states you from?”

“New York,” he said, and exhaled sideways, “doing some relief stuff up here. Just heading back to Nairobi now. You?”

I leaned back in my chair. “Came from the border today. We’re just doing a supply run, we’ll drop some stuff off southeast of Torit, probably spend the night, and then head back to Loki in the morning. We’re doing some ministry work up there later this month. Just prepping for that.”

“Right on. You guys have any trouble at the border?”

“You could say that, yeah. These guys wouldn’t let us leave without paying a lot of money.”

He smiled. “Like how much?”

I sighed, licked my lips. “Like seven hundred US dollars.”

“Fuck…” He scratched his chin. “That sucks.”

“Yeah.”

Daniel returned, and after a little small talk, the New Yorker got bored and decided it was time to go. He said a half-hearted goodbye, smashed his cigarette underfoot, and went off to wake up his driver. They talked for a minute and then the Land Cruiser revved to life and kicked into reverse in a cloud of dust.

“How much do you think that guy gets paid?” I asked, when they were gone.

Daniel thought for a minute, then said, “More than us.”

We went on, the overloaded little Benz roaring through sandpits and conquering the washboard straightaways with efficiency, thanks to Daniel’s skillful driving; the engine was almost overheating once, and we realized the radiator was spewing water from a gash near the fan, but a few burns and a pair of pliers later, the thing was pinched shut and has stayed that way for a long time.

It is a strange feeling to drive through a war zone. Looking out on the vast stretches of high desert to either side of the road, you can spot whitewashed rocks near and far, areas hastily marked by landmine crews as potentially dangerous. Then there are the more brightly-painted rocks, sometimes just beside you, not a meter away from your tires. Live, confirmed landmines. I have a colleague who, serving as a missionary in Sudan some years ago in wartime, twice drove over a landmine in a massive lorry and survived. He described it as the “loudest sound you can even imagine, but louder. It’s like a frickin’ lightning bolt underneath your feet… my ears were ringing for, like, an hour. All my tires gave out immediately – four punctures at once, it was a nightmare. I was lucky it was just an anti-personnel mine, man, or I’da lost a lot more than my hearing.”

Spent bullet casings littered the sun-bleached gravel on the side of the road, of any and every caliber imaginable. We passed first one abandoned, bullet-riddled sedan, and then a second one, burned down to the frame from a petrol fire, just sitting at the side of the road. At one point, I looked at my watch, and then went to resume staring at the passing scenery, but found myself gazing directly into the barrel of a full-on armored tank. It took me a moment to see that it was overcome with rust, and suffering from a massive hole in it’s side – probably from an RPG – and I wondered, should you be brave enough to walk over to it and peek inside, if you could find bones.

As we drove, Daniel pointed at a dip in the side of the road, and told me about the first dead body he had ever seen. “We were coming along here, and then we saw some vultures there… they were all over the place. Right there, right where that ditch is, there was this kid. He was probably your age, like nineteen or twenty-one or something. Blood on his face, like, it hadn’t happened an hour ago… it was disgusting. We kept driving, and then saw one of these army guys walking on the road with his rifle. I asked him what had happened with this kid back there, and he said, ‘oh, the boy was caught stealing a cow.’ So they shot him.”

Sudan is a country of many things, but at the top of the list, before resources, religion, and even before money, it is a country of blood. The First Sudanese Civil war, a 17-year debacle resulting in the loss of half a million lives, was a vicious bid by guerilla fighters in the South for autonomy from the oppressive, predominantly Muslim North. When the Addis Ababa Accords for peace between the two regions shattered in 1983, the Second Civil War broke out, led by the emergence of the SPLA and it’s iconic leader, John Garang. The conflict would continue until 2005, claiming almost 2 million lives and displacing around 4 million civilians over it’s 22-year course. But the root of this evil is much deeper than a political movement, much more ancient than the constantly-shifting borders of the cursed country. Before the British colonization, or the even the Muslim, Christian, and Egyptian occupations of pre-Independent Sudan, the spirit of war was brewing in it’s people. In remote villages today, you can still see plain as day the root cause of war in Africa: tribalism. It is the core instinct that drives you to kill, raid, rape, and compete with enemy tribes. I don’t know why it is there, or why this tribal instinct seems to have lost it’s edge in Westerners, but the massive humanitarian failing of the Sudanese Civil Wars is proof that burying old tensions underneath the guise of political unity will simply not stop millions of angry, armed families from exacting justice upon each other for past wrongs. Forgiveness, in many African countries, is weakness.

We blazed past a military post, warranting little more than a facetious glance from several napping, out-of-uniform soldiers sitting around a trash fire. The little Benz purred, settling into a nice, single-lane sand road with wet, densely foliated lowlands on either side. Daniel popped the vehicle into 5th gear and finally, we were humming along at a comfortable rate, bouncing and jolting considerably less than we had for the past seven hours. A large, white lorry was ahead, trailing dust and from what we could tell, driving several times faster than we were. Urgency.

“He’s hogging the road,” said Daniel to himself, beginning to decelerate.

As the truck came closer, I could see that the vehicle was absolutely packed. People were everywhere; atop the cabin, in rows upon rows sitting in the bed, even the cabin had five or six crammed inside. There could have been forty altogether. As they slowed down and our vehicles pulled haphazardly alongside each other, I noticed a handful of men gesturing to me with their hands: they were pretending to shoot, mimicking the buck of a Kalashnikov. I pointed it out to Daniel, who looked at me but said nothing.

“Hello, guys,” said the driver in an accent so thick it was difficult to discern, “you cannot go this way.”

There was a brief pause, the silence filled with the roar of two powerful engines idling.

“Uh… why?” Asked Daniel.

“Yeah, because, you know, there are the robbers there, and it is not so nice. You can just turn around and come this way.”

“Robbers? What, down this road?” Some of the guys in the bed of the truck were laughing.

“Yeah, they are there.” The driver cracked a smile.

Daniel looked at me and I at him, and without speaking to each other, we wondered if these guys were serious or, for some reason, trying to pull an elaborate joke on some unsuspecting wazungu.

“Please guys,” came the driver, “don’t risk yourselves here. You can just turn around. I am saying, this, eh, this path is not good…”

“I don’t know whether to believe this guy or not,” said Daniel, glancing in his rearview mirror, and then ahead. “I mean, if there are robbers ahead, how did they get through? You see anything up there?”

I scanned the road, my vision limited by a sharp bend half a kilometer down the way. “No. But better safe than sorry. Let’s follow these guys back to the military post and see if we can sort anything out.”

“Yeah…” Daniel looked at his watch and then kicked the car into reverse. “This is not good.”

Five minutes later, we turned into the post, finding it as disturbingly relaxed as it had been when we left it. There were five or six guys asleep on the ground, their machine guns piled alarmingly beside them, and then two more seated on their helmets, playing a game of mancala with pebbles. A fire simmered, bits of floating white ash picked up by the slight breeze, the smell of cooking oil and sugary chai filtering from the mud house beside them. They looked at our vehicles as we approached, and then as we hopped out of the car, they resumed their game.

To my chagrin, the lorry driver was a step ahead of us. He had left the massive truck idling, hopped out, and dashed ahead of us, speaking quickly in some rambling, indiscernible tongue to the guards, who were still engrossed in their game.

“You understand that?” I asked Daniel, who had been studying Arabic in Egypt just the month before.

“No, it must be a tribal language.”

“Dammit, I want to be able to hear this conversation. You know how these people are…”

We strode up to the scene together; the breeze was no match for that thick, hanging afternoon heat. Daniel interrupted the babbling driver with a firm hand on the shoulder, a gesture which drew the immediate attention of the guards, who suddenly looked up from their game, and from the driver, who paused mid-sentence. “In English, please,” said Daniel over the stillness and the crackle of the fire.

A look of disgust swept over the driver’s face. “What the hell, man, I am trying to help you now…”

“I know, I just, it’s good if we can understand what you – ”

“… and if you no fuckin’ respect me, why the fuck I gonna help you, heh?” He proceeded with a string of protests directed at the guards in whichever tribal language he was using, probably Didinga. The guards who had been sleeping were suddenly beside us, leaning carelessly on their firearms and watching the situation unfold with blank expressions. Daniel glanced between me and the car, and then at his watch, and then at the driver again, who was gesticulating wildly with his arms, nearly screaming now.

There was a loud noise behind us: the screech of brakes. I turned to see a white Land Cruiser skidding to a stop, groaning on it’s suspension as it came to a halt. There was a Red Cross logo on the door. A swirl of churned-up road dust passed across it and continued on down the desert highway, settling as it went. It had come from up the road, in the direction of the supposed hijackers, which compounded my interest in the four small, patternless holes I noticed just above the license plate. The driver stumbled out of the car, his dress shirt and tie soaked in sweat, and was met by three of the gun-toting guards who had just been observing our own debacle.

Keeping an ear on two conversations is difficult enough, but when they are both in a completely foreign tongue, you can only rely on vocal inflection, tone, and then the body language in whichever of the conversations you are seeing to maintain any degree of comprehension. The driver of the Land Cruiser seemed to be scared out of his wits, complaining to the guards about something, eventually getting angry, and then simmering down within a minute, while the driver of the white lorry was still rambling on about Daniel in a negative context.

Neither of the guards who had been playing mancala had spoken yet. They were older men, over forty, with scraps of metal shrapnel under their skin and the traditional V-shaped scars across their forehead. Many tribes believe in the power of bloodletting against disease; if you’re experiencing knee pains, simply carve a dozen small penny-sized holes in the skin around your knees. I could tell these gentlemen had both suffered from headaches in the past. One of them held up his hand, which was enough to silence the rabid truck driver, and shouted loudly across the compound to the driver of the Land Cruiser. The response sounded hoarse, but resolved, and the old man nodded slowly and then stood.

He extended his hand to Daniel, and then to me, and then said in accomplished English, “So my friends, there are hijackers on this road.”

Surprised by the sudden appearance of my mother-tongue, I responded that “this is very good to know, but it’s also a problem. We’re with the church, and we have supplies for some of our friends along the road. Is there another route we can take, or, something…”

“No, no. There is no other road. We have had this problem of hijackers for some, maybe, two weeks now. And it is not only that they are stealing.” The man spat into the dust. “The problem is, they are also beating people very bad, and scaring them just… you know, it is too much. But uh, for you, if you can take one of my men here, this guy, then it will be safe for you.”

Daniel and I looked at each other, and knew the game. The idea of a group of hijackers operating so close to a military post is as ridiculous in conception as in execution, but it is common knowledge that in Sudan, these two sides of the law exist in interdependence rather than independence. If a truck is sent down the road with a military escort, this is their hall pass, and the driver and/or passengers are expected to pay their soldier for his services. But if a truck is allowed through without an escort, as we were before, then the hijackers down the road are given freedom to do their job, provided the post commander gets a slice of the profits. And since both the criminals and the police typically live in the same village some kilometers away, this symbiotic relationship is allowed to continue with the full knowledge and cooperation of all involved.

“Yeah, the problem is,” I said with a sigh, “we have no room for an escort. We’re completely loaded. You can even see it from here.” I pointed to our Benz, resting heavily-laden on the hard soil.

“Mm,” came the old man, eyeing the car, sizing up the worth of our cargo. “And why can’t you fit three in the front?”

“There’s no middle seat,” interrupted Daniel, “it’s only the stick and the rest of the gear for 4-wheel drive. There’s only space for two.”

The old man nodded, spat again, and looked back at his men. “Yeah, then you can go.”

“What?”

“You can go, it’s no problem.” He smiled. “We have, uh, we have called the hijackers, and they are coming, so… you can go without a problem, now.”

Daniel looked at the road. “You’re sure? What about this other guy who’s just come here?”

“This guy is not, you know, he’s talking about something different. There is no problem. Just go.”

“Let’s just do it,” said Daniel when we were back in the car.

“Do what?”

“Let’s just pray, and then keep going. God knows what’s going to happen.”

Part of me felt like telling him that he had gone completely batshit, and that this was the definition of taking unnecessary risks, but to my surprise, I heard myself say, “Hell yeah, let’s do this.”

The Benz was sounding better than ever, the converted diesel engine buzzing a sweet tune in 5th as we roared past the place where we had first stopped beside the white lorry. It felt like my heartbeat was revving at the same RPM as the engine, but I faithfully scanned the sides of the road for anything that could be human. The sand road wasn’t as dusty now, so it would be harder to see us coming before we rounded the bend, should anyone be waiting for us. My panga, a kind of double-edged machete I had bought in Samburu on another trip in Northern Kenya, was tucked away beneath a towel and a few water bottles in the side of my door; I hastily unpacked it, took it out of it’s sheath, and put it just beside my feet on the floor mat.

“I don’t think it would be a sword fight,” said Daniel flatly.

At last, we came to the bend, and Daniel swerved the car through the sharp turn in 4th, spraying a sheet of sand from under our tires into the thick greenery. I strained to see any movement ahead of us… there. Not a hundred yards down the road, striding calmly out from either side of the way, were two African guys with AK-47s in their arms. Now there were four, forming a line across the road, blocking our way. They didn’t look the way I had pictured – buff goons with masks and camouflage and strings of ammunition across their chest – they were young, not older than twenty-five, thin, wearing ripped clothes and shoes that were falling apart.

“You see that?” I asked.

“Of course I do.” But he was still in 4th, foot frozen between the brake and the clutch, undecided.

I looked back at the hijackers, standing seventy-five yards away now, and realized with horror that their guns were up, barrels aimed right for us. Shit, shit, shit.

When a situation has descended so far into danger, to the point that you are staring it in the face and needing to make a choice, your body is designed to compensate for the complete absence of calm that will suddenly come over you. It is God’s gift to man. Within a few seconds, you will be so overcome with adrenaline that you cannot, will not second-guess whatever instinctual, blink decision you make.

“Drive,” I said in monotone, but Daniel had already made the decision.

He gave the car gas, and kicked it into 5th gear. We huddled as low as we could manage against the dashboard, and waited for the the shots to come. One second passed, two passed, and then I peeked out of the window. The young men with guns had retreated to the side of the road, still pointing their rifles right at us as we passed them, smiling and yelling at each other jokingly. I sat up. Daniel caught my attention, and pointed at something out his window. I stared out at a large group of men, maybe fifteen of them, all heavily armed with both Kalashnikovs and other more powerful support guns, walking beside the car. They were expressionless, pacing parallel to us from a distance, eyes glued to the little blue Benz rocketing past.

And then they were gone in a cloud of dust.

Four months later, I was again entering Sudan via Lokichoggio, but the circumstances were very different. This time I was alone, and instead of driving, I had been given the opportunity to fly. I realized, holding my bags in my lap and swallowing against the pressure change in the roaring volume of the Cessna 206, that the road between Kenya and Sudan looks very different when you are in the air, looking down on it. I could see the twisting, dusty road through No Man’s Land, I could see Nadapal. Still further along our northwestern route, I found Kapoeta in the distance, and knew that somewhere out there, the hijackers were drinking chai and having breakfast.

But 9,000 vertical feet removed, it feels different. It looks beautiful.