In January, I lived in two worlds. In the first, every day contained catastrophes, loud and insistent. Most of them had already happened by the time I woke up and turned on my phone. I would hear from humanitarians reporting casualty numbers from clashes in Jonglei, pastoralists telling me about raids on the Mayom-Warrap border, and politicians whispering about tensions in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. It was morning in America, mid-afternoon in East Africa, and everything seemed to be on fire. I’ve spent a decade working as a conflict researcher in South Sudan, for an alphabet soup of organizations, and I know the slow pace of life across much of the country. In Mayom, despite South Sudan’s ongoing civil war, most of the day is played to the rhythm of the area’s beloved cattle. Raiding takes place alongside milking and grazing. However, if you were to only read my WhatsApp and Signal messages, life in South Sudan would appear to be an endless train-wreck of catastrophes piling up on each other. No one sent me messages about milk. My mornings were spent finding out all I could about the conflict in the country, writing up reports, and then, finally, East Africa would sleep, and my other world could begin.
I was staying in a small town in upstate New York, where, I told myself, I could finally sit down, after my last trip to South Sudan, and do some writing. My life was extended on a string that stretched from my desk to the gym. I tried to avoid talking to anyone as I ran through town. The place has been a spa-resort since the 19th century, and the money set in early. It’s dominated by a race-track and during August, the rich and the damned leave the city to “summer” upstate. Only the genuinely rich, I thought, as I ran up and down the high street of that empty town, can make a season into a verb, as if, relieved of any need to maintain themselves, duration had become a problem that only endless summers could solve.
I had spent the second half of 2019 doing research for a Norwegian NGO on the situation in South Sudan, and in February two of my colleagues and I were supposed to present our findings at the UN in New York, and the State Department in DC, before traveling to London, Oslo, and then Juba. It would be, my colleagues had cheerfully announced, a ‘world tour.’ No one, the Norwegian travel agent who booked my trip told me, travels like this anymore. I haven’t seen an itinerary like this, she said, since the 1980s. I didn’t tell her that NGO budgets were not what they once were, and we would largely have to stay with friends on our trip. Our mission was to tell the diplomats whether there would be an imminent catastrophe in South Sudan. Diplomats like the near future; it’s a time span they feel they can grasp. You can do things in the near future; you can plan. Most catastrophes, I wanted to tell them, are both faster and slower than that.
After I arrived in South Sudan, I would also do fieldwork for a Swiss NGO, investigating militia leaders taking part in the civil war, and so as I prepared to leave that quiet, rich town in upstate New York, I packed a dry-bag that I had just purchased. It was a ridiculous piece of grey rubber, almost rigid, in which you could barely fit anything. The friends I stayed with in New York laughed at me, as if I were one of those people that dress head-to-foot in Arctic protection gear to go to the bodega in December. I really need it, I spluttered. I’m not one of those survivalists who stores up water purification tablets and eagerly awaits the coming catastrophe, I explained, as one of my friends opened my bag and pulled out the water purification tablets. Last November, I had spent days walking through the floods in South Sudan, dirty water up to my neck, holding my decidedly un-waterproof bag over my head. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
Everything seemed fine, back then. Real catastrophes occurred elsewhere. With friends, I went to Chinatown so I could buy supplies to cook an endless Sichuan meal for Chinese New Year, and there was a stream of men running along the street with pigs on their back. How could everything not be right with the world?
My colleagues were a voluble Canadian, all gesticulation and enthusiasm, and an aristocratic Argentine, complete with Mont Blanc pen and volume of Proust. Together, we were like the beginning of a bad joke. In New York, when the Argentine, the Brit, and the Canadian walked into the UN, we met an aged Filipino veteran of its venerable bureaucracy, who was to act as our Virgil and guide us through the endless corridors of HQ, steering us into meetings with bored Russian security officers who checked their phones while I banged on the table and warned of impending catastrophe in South Sudan. The UN, I breathlessly told the officers, cannot support South Sudan’s genocidal national army again. They shrugged: the UN had a budget that needed to be spent, and the South Sudanese army looked like a good candidate. Surely its soldiers needed training. The UN tries to tame the world by planning it, and catastrophes are never part of the plan.
In DC, we didn’t meet Virgil, but Cerberus. On our first morning in the city, we were standing in the security line outside the State Department, and we were late. Ahead of us, there was a large party of jovial Mexicans, and between them and an old shipping container—which promised a cursory X-ray and entry into the august halls beyond—there stood a beleaguered young security officer tightly gripping a clipboard showing a list of names. Show me your American visas, she told the Mexicans, a demand that I had never heard at the State Department. The Mexican diplomats flashed their passports while she stared at the clipboard.
After she let them in, I turned up. American visa, she said curtly. I’m a British citizen, I told her; we are lucky enough to have visa-less travel to the United States. America visa, she said, once again, as if I were back at JFK. I have an appointment with the Office of the Special Envoy for South Sudan, I said. She scanned her clipboard, and I peered at it as she did so. My name wasn’t on it. Perhaps none of the Mexicans’ names were on it, either. This isn’t for you, she snapped, holding the clipboard away from me, before pointing her finger at the paper, as if pinning me down. I found you, she finally said, you can go in.
Inside, the State Department officials proved far more responsive than the UN bureaucrats, but something was off. They mouthed words of moral concern, but everything they said seemed to float in the air, somehow divorced from a world in which their words would make sense. I was reminded of Sartre’s acerbic introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, where the “walking lies” of fraternity and equality are shouted in Western capitals only for empty echoes to be heard in Africa—only “nity” and “lity,” drowned out by colonial violence. Now, I thought, the words are mumbled in Western capitals: even in DC, the diplomats don’t pretend human rights make any sense. It didn’t make any difference to me; I was on auto-pilot, my speech already interiorized. I banged the table again and warned of impending catastrophe. Yes, they said, catastrophe, their brows furrowed. How worrying.
By WhatsApp, I complained to a fellow researcher one night in DC. It doesn’t do anything, I told her, they don’t listen. Yeah, she said, it’s a shit-show, but you have to try, right?
It was on the flight to London that I started feeling a little sick. Fatigue; a dry rattle in the back of my throat; a friendly cat that took up residence on my chest. It was just the normal cold I get when flying. I chalked it up to too many whiskeys, too many cigarettes, too many late nights, and too many insane days, packed with meetings. I hate flying, anyway. Whose idea was this world tour?
I haven’t lived in Britain for fifteen years, and eagerly take any opportunities I can to see friends and family. It was early February, and Covid-19 was still a muttering in the airways, which felt at the same time proximate and impossibly remote. Lockdown wouldn’t begin in the UK until March 23. Still, as I arrived in London, I briefly considered not going straight to meet my 71-year-old mother at the Marksman. It was only a cough, I was certain, but I still had a moment’s pause. She would be terribly disappointed, I told myself. She’s taken the train down from Derby, I thought, just for this lunch, and I won’t see her again for the rest of the year. The weight of prearranged plans—and the desire to see my mother—won out over my anxiety, and we ate Hereford beef and Yorkshire Pudding, drank wine, and talked about gardening.
Catastrophes are impossible to integrate into life. They interrupt the quotidian, laying bare the paucity of our preparations. Nonetheless, on that trip, as the world seemed to unwind, I relentlessly insisted on going through with my plans. I was as ridiculous—as symptomatic—as all those who pride themselves on their ‘productivity’ in quarantine, as if these stubborn, misplaced convictions were the only scaffolding we had to hold up our world. It might have been the beginning of a global pandemic, but I was still thinking about lunch plans. In London, Covid-19 was a rupture, just beyond the logic of the thinkable. I was staying with my uncle (70s, seriously ill), and I blithely told him that the virus would likely kill millions over the next ten years—mainly the elderly and those with comorbidities. He gulped. I couldn’t think about the end of my world from within my world. It didn’t feel real.
In meeting after meeting, I felt simultaneously bored and overwhelmed. I was reciting the same spiel about the same armed groups three or four times a day, to the point where even things I knew viscerally—facts obtained after days of walking through swamps—felt unreal, as if they were just balls to be thrown around between diplomats and humanitarians, to be discarded before dinner. At one such meeting, sitting in a room packed full of NGO workers, I started to fantasize about the possibility of quarantine. An end to the endless meetings, I told myself. No more of this strangely busy routine that seems to dictate bureaucratic life, and that never actually produces anything. It was just the writer’s normal fantasy, I suppose—pressing pause on the world so that one can really write—but this time it would have had a real justification: sorry, I can’t come to the meeting, I’m in quarantine. Back then, I had never even heard of Zoom, and spent those bored minutes in London leafing through the holiday brochure of my mind, regally deciding which country I would deign to pick for quarantine.
After London, the four of us headed to Oslo: the Argentine, the Brit, the Canadian, and the cat on my chest. After our second meeting there, as we wandered the cold streets of that expensive city, I felt slightly delirious. I was sure I saw a representative from the British Foreign Office serving sandwiches at the cozy wooden bar in the arts center we passed, and wasn’t that the US Special Envoy at the bus stop? It was becoming hard to remember who was whom: Everyone said the same things, in the same meetings, and I gave the same speech, over and over again. Catastrophe is coming. The peace agreement will collapse. Hunger and famine. There may be locusts.
In one of our meetings at the Norwegian Foreign Office, there weren’t enough chairs, so we found some plastic stools in the hallway and perched close to the Canadian as he began his impassioned speech about the situation in the Internally Displaced People’s camps of South Sudan. As he talked, I swear you could see him start to dissolve. His nose began streaming and his eyes watered, the tears mixing with the snot, descending freely down his face as coughs broke apart his speech. He had met my cat. The diplomats surrounding him began to edge their stools away, until the Canadian was all alone in the middle of the room, his nose a Niagara, trying to talk about the dangers posed to civilians if the UN tried to close the camps. It was impossible to hear him, and ultimately, he made his apologies and left the room. I picked up the thread, and the meeting continued.
When we met the Canadian later, he told us he had acute asthma and needed to go to the hospital immediately. The Argentine and I carried on with our meetings. Somehow, they seemed important—they seemed like all that was important. The more I gave the same talk, the more diplomats reacted with indifference to stories of impending catastrophe, and the angrier I became.
That evening, the Canadian told us he would be medevacked home the next day. I was feeling better, and my cat had shrunk to the size of a hamster. With the Argentine, I prepared to travel to Juba. Looking back, it was striking that we never considered stopping our trip. The tour must go on, we told each other, exhausted. We had both had colds, but neither of us thought we had it. It was February 27, a month before New York would lock down, and the virus still felt far away. Besides, I said to myself, what we are talking about is important, and no one is listening. We need to make them listen. The world isn’t going to stop because of Covid-19, I told myself.
The next day, however, while we were making our connection in Dubai airport, I began to see the emergent contours of a new world, not stopped, but intensified. The airport was en masque. Thousands of people without lips, heads down, staring at their phones, communicating via messenger; a sort of visual commentary on the way the whole world has spent the last decade. But it wasn’t just the people who were masked: the space itself was wrapped in plastic, full of improvised corridors pushing people towards temperature sensors and away from crowds. The Argentine was feeling ill, and went to sleep on a bench while we waited for our connecting flight.
I went to the bar and struck up a conversation with two young Emirati men, neither of whom showed any interest in masks. They were downing $40 Vodka-and-Red-Bulls in preparation for their flight to Moscow. We met them on Instagram, they told me, smiling proudly. They look just as good in real life, one said, pointing to two young Russian Instagram models, dressed in short skirts and boob jobs, standing amongst the masked workers. We are going to have an amazing time, one of the Emirati men told me, as they downed their drinks and headed for the departure gate.
I was worried about Juba. South Sudan, like much of East Africa, has experience dealing with viruses thanks to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo that threatened its southern border, and I was sure there would be temperature checks on arrival. Though I have spent many years of my life there, and as much as I love South Sudan, Juba was not my dream quarantine destination. We were certain we didn’t have the virus, and we didn’t even have a high temperature, but we were exhausted and strung out and my mind was full of fantasies of being detained for a fever, and consigned to Juba’s hospital for weeks on end. There, I thought, I will certainly catch something, even if it isn’t Covid-19. Unnecessarily, I took some Ibuprofen and Paracetamol on the plane, timed to kick in as we waited outside a container at the airport, its walls covered with garish cartoons of Ebola victims and warnings about touching vomit.
Medical staff, wearing surgical masks, walked up and down the line, shooting us with temperature guns. My temperature was fine; it was my arrival form that caused problems. You have put, the Ministry of Health official told me, jabbing at the paper, point of arrival: Juba, while this, he insisted, is Juba, international airport. He sent me to the corner of the room to rewrite my form, and then relented, leaving me to walk into the airport, clutching my dry-bag.
When we arrived in South Sudan on March 1, there were no cases of Covid-19. Jonglei, in the east of the country, was imploding, as Murle and Nuer pastoralists fought in clashes that left hundreds dead, while in Western Bahr el Ghazal, defections from the rebels threatened to undermine the peace deal that had brought a tentative end to the country’s civil war. Every day brought fresh catastrophes, and the virus slipped into the background of my life, as—our global tour over—I started my work for the Swiss NGO, interviewing militia commanders in tents and hotels, and reporting on the ongoing violence. I got angry with friends who kept sending me daily updates on Covid-19’s progression through the world. Hunger has not stopped, I told them. Wars continue. We can’t let Covid-19 obscure that, I said. It is, I thought, becoming a worldwide obsession, as sapping of our attention spans as Trump’s Twitter feed. There are other stories, other disasters, that our focus on Covid-19 occludes.
While I was in Western Bahr el Ghazal, on March 3, I heard from the Canadian. He told me that my cat was influenza, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was sure I hadn’t had it, but even this certainty had not managed to silence that nagging voice that suggested we should have called this whole tour off; that this wasn’t the moment to do research in South Sudan. Instead, I had continued, holding onto my plans, even if everything else collapsed around them. I had been deeply, ridiculously committed to the idea of getting to use that damned dry bag, but my convictions were also serious – the research mattered to me, and—I hoped—mattered to South Sudan.
I continued working until I got back to Juba in mid-March. By then, Covid-19 was an undeniable reality. Uganda had shut its land border with its northern neighbor and food prices in the capital had skyrocketed. I was supposed to be writing up a report on the conflict in South Sudan, but I spent my days like bourgeois everywhere, surgically attached to my phone, reading live feeds of the disaster as it unfolded, and trying—and failing—to get a handle on the scale of what was happening. Trying, I suppose, to count it, and somehow integrate it into my life.
Around the world, countries were following Europe’s example and closing up. I was certain that a lockdown in Juba, imposed on a population that cannot survive a day without work, would be an absolute disaster, and I began to think about leaving. My fantasies about quarantine, dreamt in London, now belonged to a different era, in which British men could choose where they lived. Part of me felt deep satisfaction when African countries announced bans on flights from Europe. Finally, I thought, the colonists get a taste of their own medicine.
Another part of me felt blind panic. A friend told me he had a spare flat in Budapest, only for Orbán to close Hungary’s borders the next day. Another invited me to his place in southwest France, before the French decided that the British were not welcome. Everywhere, drawbridges were going up, nationalism reasserting itself.
Later that week I left the riverside restaurant of the hotel where I was staying and walked between converted shipping containers towards the guards and checkpoint that mark its entrance, only to see my way blocked by four men in hazmat suits putting a body into an ambulance. The body belonged to a Frenchman, and for two days, the hotel held its breath, waiting nervously for the results of the test. The Lebanese restaurant manager kept coughing, smoking, and then wiping everything down with bacterial wipes. You’re not helping, I wanted to whisper. Business had stopped abruptly after the Frenchman was taken away, and the previously bustling bar was empty. I ate my meals alone, next to the Nile, staring into the water. When I told my friends about the Frenchman over the phone, I noticed my voice trembling. If the test comes back positive, my friends in government informed me, the whole hotel will be quarantined.
On March 13, the test came back negative and the Frenchman discharged. Nevertheless, I decided to cut my trip short, as did the Argentine. I didn’t want to get stuck in Juba without a job or a house. I would not be going to Jonglei; I would not get to use my dry-bag in the floods. There were rumors that all flights into Juba would be cancelled soon, and I was still not sure where to go. I didn’t live anywhere. While Trump had banned entry into the US from Europe—and soon after from the UK—he hadn’t banned Europeans, it seemed, and I had just spent a month in South Sudan. I wasn’t sure I would be let into America, but decided to try to get back upstate, and bought a ticket to New York that went via Addis Ababa and Abidjan, leaving the next day. The Argentine was also heading to Addis, before leaving on a long flight to Buenos Aires. I’ll have a lot of time to read Proust, he told me.
I arrived at the airport six hours early, expecting calamity. (Some catastrophes you can predict.) Juba airport is, at the best of times, hell, and this was not the best of times. There is a single room that deals with tickets, luggage, and security, for every single flight. On that day, there were supposed to be three flights to Addis, but the rumor was that the first flight was overbooked, the third flight would be cancelled, and the airport would be shut down the next day. The room was packed. I spent five long hours waiting to check in, sweating and praying, before I finally made it through, and joined the lucky few crammed into a tiny departure room, drinking hot tea and staring at Al Jazeera Arabic. The television was displaying the number of the dead across the world as a ticker-tape, country by country, as if they were sports scores, a spectacle for those already feeling deprived by the absence of baseball—or else the numbers of dead were to be read as mantras, like the names of the deceased in a Daša Drindić novel, to be chanted by those who had no other way to try and control what was happening.
When we finally arrived in Addis, I went to a hotel by shuttle; I was to stay overnight before the flight to Abidjan—and thence to New York—the next day. I spent an awkward, uneven night, struggling to learn the new habits of our species: how to sanitize the doorknobs after I stepped into my hotel room, and how to wipe down my desk before I started writing that evening. It took me weeks to resign myself to regular handwashing becoming the commas that punctuate my day.
The next morning, March 18, Bole airport was unrecognizable from my previous trips to Ethiopia. Everyone was masked. I once spent months interviewing US counterterrorism trainers for a piece in the Washington Monthly, and I bridled at their insistence on what I always thought of as security theater—the endless airport checks that we must endure in security lines, which only ever create the pretense of safety. On no account, the trainers used to tell me, could masks ever be worn inside an airport: That is how terrorists would hide their identities. I wanted to phone them all up, and show them our new reality. We live, I thought, with a different sort of security theater now: an endless play in which thousands of people wash their hands every ten minutes and maintain distances as rigidly as troops in formation on the parade ground. Like any form of populist theater, it comes with its own set of enemies, and the Chinese have replaced the terrorists in Trump’s rhetoric. It is, I felt, no less fanciful, no less fictitious. This will be a quiet catastrophe, and it will reach us all.
The airport kept turning up improbable characters, like stray jigsaw pieces looking for their place in a newly vital map of nations: In one line, I encountered a Venezuelan woman who had flown in from Juba, but who didn’t speak Amharic, Arabic, or English. I tried to help her for a while, but her story was full of holes and inconsistencies that I couldn’t parse. At one checkpoint, in front of yet another bureaucrat, she was herded away, down a different tunnel, towards a different future. Another passenger, from Caracas, had more luck. He was, he told me, desperately trying to get back to Delhi, and the only way to get there, he said, was via JFK. To get to America from Venezuela, he said, was no easy feat. He had flown to Curaçao—very nice, he said, until they quarantined us—and then around the Caribbean, before getting a flight to Addis, so he could get to New York, so that, finally, he could return to Delhi. If, he said, they let me into the US. We sat waiting in the departure gate, bonding by sharing my rapidly diminishing supply of hand sanitizer. We were all fleeing, all trying to get somewhere safe before all the cities locked their gates. To my surprise, I passed through to the departure gate without being stopped by immigration officials.
On the plane from Addis, I sat next to a Malian couple who told me about their journey to America. They had to go backwards, they said in French, to go forwards: they went to Addis to get to New York. They spoke about their future life in America with such enthusiasm that for a while I forgot that there, too, the future had been suspended three weeks before.
We circled over Abidjan for hours before we were told that we had been denied clearance to land, and were being re-routed to Accra. As we touched down in the Ghanaian capital, we all, I imagine, had the same sinking feeling in our gut. We had made the decision to leave a day too late. All our timings were off. It isn’t fair, I wanted to say. Life in South Sudan was continuing as usual. Normal levels of catastrophe. If you want me to make life-changing decisions, I told the plane window, you need to give me more notice. I found a purpose in translating everything for the couple sitting next to me, but soon the captain ran out of words, and we sank into a sweaty silence.
After four hours of what I imagine were negotiations, we got underway and headed to Abidjan. On the runway, we were again stationary as some passengers departed, others boarded, and Ivorian immigration officials went up and down the aisles checking our papers. American visa, he asked me. I don’t need one, I said, I’m a British citizen. It was like being back at the State Department. American visa, he asked me, insistent. I don’t need a visa, I almost shouted, feeling increasingly unsure of myself. After a while, the immigration officer relented. The Malian couple were not so lucky. They had no visas, and the officials ordered them off the plane. This is so fucked, I said, loud enough for one of the officials to hear, step back towards me, point at my passport, and begin the whole song and dance again.
I didn’t sleep at all on the flight to JFK. My body was frozen rigid. By the time we touched down, I was sweating enough that I was not sure that I would let me into America. I took two Ibuprofen and some Paracetamol out of sheer paranoia and walked into their airport to find nothing. No temperature tests. No forms. No questions from medical officers about where I had been or where I was going. This, I thought, is the American state. Foucault would turn in his grave. There is not even the pretense of governance here—just abandonment. It was a state that had eaten itself, over the last decades, and we happened to be stepping through the bones it left behind.
The immigration line was immense. An epic snake of people as sweaty and pressed together as anything in Juba airport. We all staggered forward, some of us in in Hazmat suits, and others, like me, in jeans and a t-shirt. As we waited, the man in front of me turned around and looked down. Man, he said, that’s a great bag. Is that bag waterproof? I think I’ve seen those bags at REI. He looked at me admiringly, you have clearly come prepared.
Within a minute of arriving at the immigration counter I was sent to secondary screening. I had been there many times before: you hand over your passport and sit down. You can’t ask anyone anything, inquire about anything, or use your phone. Finally, after hours have passed, the officer may deign to ask you to come up to the counter. This time, I was lucky enough it only took about ninety minutes. I haven’t been in Europe, I immediately protested, I’ve been in Africa. At the desk, the immigration officer stared down at my passport. Yeah, he said, the problem isn’t with letting you in. Legally, we have to let you in. The problem, sir, is that this is not wise. The problem is, he said, waiting for his dramatic pause, that I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get out.
When I’m in South Sudan, nothing seems continuous. I am always surrounded by aborted projects and abandoned dreams. In Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal, in the middle of town, there is a plane that crashed many years ago, now accumulating dust: a minor inconvenience for the herds of cows that press past it. Elsewhere in town there are broken-down tanks in the streets and dilapidated government buildings that only open ritually, when annoying guests such as myself come and ask for interviews with officials. Elsewhere in South Sudan, mills rust for lack of parts, while buildings constructed by Harvard in the 1970s to house undergraduate students doing projects in Sudan are used as military barracks. Each decade is visible. Different temporalities combine and disarticulate before my eyes: dreams of seventies modernism jostle in the landscape with abandoned UN bases built only five years ago and now occupied by militia groups.
As I drove north through Queens from JFK in April, I stared at empty factories, already accumulating dust, and remembered the tanks and planes of South Sudan. As our just-in-time logistics chains break down, other parts of the world are succumbing to the same sort of temporal disarticulation.
I’m back in upstate New York now. My mornings still belong to South Sudan, where a lockdown has been imposed. One friend in Western Bahr el Ghazal told me he is suffering terribly from Covid-20. Surely, I said, you mean Covid-19. No, he replied, Covid-20, that is what we are calling hunger these days. This lockdown is making life too difficult, he told me. As elsewhere in the world, it is the poor in South Sudan who are bearing the cost of life coming to an abrupt stop.
In my afternoons, I live in my other world, though the gym has closed, and I content myself with push-ups in the garden under the disapproving eyes of my rich neighbors. Nothing has any coherence. My life is lived in different temporalities, doled out to different parts of the world, and the only meaningful rhythm in it, as for so many bourgeois, is the tyranny imposed by the demands of my sourdough starter.
The one thing I don’t think about is where I will go after my three months in this country run out. After I work out in the garden, I write—finally I get my time to really write—and then practice the form of demobilized politics that is shared by all of those lucky enough to stay at home during lockdown, in which apathy and activism combine in the figure of a body, slumped on a couch, watching Netflix and posing questions to a Sphinx-like internet, that responds only on the condition that the answer is something one can buy.
I might get another dry bag.
—May 13, 2020