Maggie’s customers included the Christians of Faith (COF) organization in Omaha. She audited their books every three months, a job of 3 or 4 days for which they paid her one thousand dollars plus the cost of a modest hotel room. By the standards of the small town in Kansas where she lived with her husband, an evangelical preacher, that was good money.
She was working her way through the accounts one afternoon when her phone rang. It was John Bright, the President of COF in Washington, D.C.
“Margaret,” he began. “You’ve done good work for us and I have an opportunity which may interest you. You may find it a bit strange. Are you sitting down?”
She was intrigued. “Yes, Mr. Bright, but call me Maggie.”
“Okay, Maggie it is. Call me John. We thought of you because you helped with that successful women’s visit to Greece two years ago. With your international experience we thought of you for a temporary job we need to fill immediately.”
Maggie was intrigued. “Tell me more.” She almost laughed. “International experience?” Her international experience was a two-week visit to Greece. The thought of that trip brought back memories that made her twitch with pleasure.
“To give you some background, the United Nations is distributing food and medicine to starving people in southern Sudan. The base for the operation is in Lokichogio, a town in Kenya near the border with Sudan. Every day transport aircraft take off from Loki and deliver food, medicine, and other emergency goods to airports carved out of the bush and scattered all over southern Sudan.”
He continued. “We’re one of the NGOs – that’s ‘non-governmental organizations’ in UN speak – contracted to distribute the food and medicine. The UN pays us for our work, and it’s an important source of revenue for us. Frankly, our program is a mess due to incompetent management. The UN is going to cancel our contract if we don’t get our program straightened out. We need an accountant out there. Quickly. A good accountant. And you’re good.”
“How long would you need me?”
“We estimate three months.” He rushed on. “I know you’re married and are blessed with two children, but I’m told they are in college and not living at home. So, if you could see your way to helping us.”
“Well, it sounds interesting, but...”
“We’ll pay you six thousand dollars a month, plus free housing, a car and driver, and medical care if that should become necessary. You won’t have many expenses, so you can save a good part of that money. Would you like me to give you more details about the job?”
“Yes, please.” Six thousand dollars a month plus expenses was a lot of money for Maggie.
“One warning,” he said. “Our UN contract prohibits religious proselytizing. You’ll be fired and sent home if you do it. I don’t want to offend you, but our mission is to feed hungry people, not to tell them about Jesus. This is a secular project. Is that clear?”
Maggie answered. “It won’t be a problem for me.” Maggie had the impression that John Bright did not have a high opinion of enthusiastic, evangelical Christians. He seemed to be one of those liberal Christians so deplored by preachers such as her husband.
“I’m sorry to be so blunt, but the person you would replace thought it was her job to distribute bibles rather than food.”
“I understand. Tell me more about the job.” She was both terrified and terribly interested in what would be so far out of her life experience.
Maggie persuaded herself and her husband that she should take the job, and ten days later she arrived in Lokichogio on a propeller-driven airplane from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
The airport at Lokichogio was hot and dusty. Half a dozen battered cargo planes, some of them painted in military greens and grays were sitting around the far side of the tarmac. Sacks of grain were being loaded on two of them. African workers clustered in the narrow shade offered by the wings of the airplanes. Several small one-engine passenger planes -- four, six, and eight seaters -- were clustered around the one-room, whitewashed concrete building that served as a terminal.
She looked around. The land was flat, but several rocky outcrops interrupted the desert horizon. It was green, the rainy season. Outside the mesh fence around the airport were a dozen tall, slender women with intensely black skin wearing ragged clay-colored cloaks tied over a shoulder. Each of them wore a dozen metal rings around her throat, stretching her necks to an unnatural length. Several of them carried babies in slings.
An African man from COF met Maggie on the tarmac with a Toyota Land Cruiser. His name was Joseph. She liked him. He had a big, jolly smile. As they drove by the women he nodded in disapproval, “Turkanas. Very primitive. Bandits and beggars.” Maggie thought them exotic and romantic.
The UN compound was adjacent to the airport. A guard opened a gate to let them inside. The driver parked in front of a thatched roof building with open sides.
They walked into the thatched hut. A bulletin board at the entrance posted news and announcements. Under the roof was a reception desk and a cafeteria with steam tables and metal trays and wicker tables and chairs scattered around a cement floor. A book shelf in one corner was crowded with well-worn paperback novels. Like Joseph, her driver, the African at the reception desk wore a brilliantly white shirt and greeted her with a big smile. “Ah, yes. Mrs. Sanders. We have a very nice place for you to live.”
She signed the register. “How do I pay for this?” she asked.
“Your NGO will pay the bill.”
“This way, madam,” Joseph said. He carried her bags and kept up a running line of chatter as they walked toward her new home. “This is bar, here,” he said, as they left the reception. It was another open-sided thatched roof hut with a circular bar surrounded by high chairs and a few tables. Several men were drinking beer and smoking. “Pilots,” the driver said. “Canadian, American, Swiss, Swede, Dutch, Russian – many pilots. Also, expats from forty NGOs and six UN agencies live here.” “Expat” was UN shorthand for expatriate foreigners, mostly Europeans, employed in Loki and the Sudan.
Before them stretched lines of tents spaced evenly along wide sandy paths outlined by whitewashed rocks and shaded by a few acacia trees. The sun was intensely bright and hot. “Shower building for women, And bathrooms.” said Joseph, pointing at a concrete block building with a corrugated metal roof. Beside it was another identical building. “Shower building and bathrooms for men. Sometimes not enough water,” he laughed.
Joseph led her to a tent. “Number 158. You remember number on sign. Easy to get lost. All tents the same.”
The tent had a wooden door and eaves that shaded out the rays of the sun. The driver unlocked the door and handed her the key. She stepped inside. Her “home” in Lokichogio was about ten feet by ten feet in size and had a wooden plank floor. A single bed was against one canvas wall and a small chest of drawers was against another along with a dressing table and a chair. A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling and a small lamp was on a table beside the bed. She switched on the lamp. No response. “Electricity from six to eleven every night,” Joseph said.
The closet was a pole strung between two straps hanging from the ceiling. It was hot in the tent. Joseph opened up mesh windows in the sides and roof to let in air. “Safe here, but you leave money and passport locked in COF office.”
“Where is the COF office?”
“Just outside the gate of UN compound. You look for sign.”
“Thank you, Joseph. I’ll come by the office after I unpack and freshen up a bit.”
“Yes, madam. Welcome to Loki.”
She suffered her ups and down those first few weeks. She was lonely. She missed her children -- but not her husband. She had the feeling that the other expats living in the tent community were shunning her. Her NGO had the reputation of being holier-than-thou. She had no romantic or sex life. Given her employment with a religious organization, she felt she should live up to its strict and fundamentalist principles.
Mostly she worked. Seven days a week, For many hours each day she crouched over the account books, trying to make sense of them and get her organization back into the good graces of the United Nations. For a change, she went to the airport every day for a couple of hours and became adept at bossing the work gangs of Africans who shouldered bags of wheat and boxes of medicine and loaded them on airplanes. They called her “Memsahib.”
To beat the heat, she bought myself a new wardrobe in the small shops along the dirt street that comprised the town of Lokichogio. Two flowery, wrap-around, knee-length skirts of the thinnest cotton, two loosely-woven, cotton blouses with short square-cut bottoms, and a pair of leather sandals met her needs. The total cost was twenty dollars.
She also bought bras and panties of the lightest possible material. The bras consisted of an elastic strip around her body just under her breasts, a triangle-shaped piece of cloth to cover each breast, and thin straps that went over her shoulders. That was it: no wires, no supports, and no padding. Wearing the bra she felt flat as a pancake, but the bra covered her nipples when she bent over to inventory sacks of grain, which she did many times daily.
The panties were also of the thinnest of cotton with no lining. The hair of her pubic area showed through the thin cloth, but with a skirt on top of them she did not feel immodest.
She quit wearing makeup. It was uncomfortable in the heat, so she used moisturizer and nothing else. She didn’t fuss with her hair. She kept it washed and clean when there was water in the showers, ran a comb through it in the morning, and tied it into a pony-tail. She liked her no-nonsense look, complete with wrinkles and crows-feet which signified that she was a mature woman, 39 years old.
She liked her body in her new clothes – the swish of the flimsy cotton skirt, the sun shining through the skirt and showing the outline of her legs, the airy mesh of the loose blouse, barely reaching to her midriff, the suggestion of a cleft between her breasts, often emphasized with a rivulet of sweat. Why would anybody need more clothing? She was becoming a “disaster junkie” – as humanitarian relief workers derisively called themselves.
A month after Maggie arrived. she had unsnarled the account books and decided to take a trip to the field -- the field being southern Sudan which was about the size of Texas and had a population estimated at 10 million people She wanted to visit the places where employees of her organization were distributing food. Mostly, she was curious
Travel to Sudan from Loki was only by airplane. The few roads were in miserable condition and they were plagued by shifta (bandits) who roamed the region. The UN aircraft were old and decrepit cargo planes which had outlived their lives in military air forces. There were no seats on the planes; passengers sat in fold-down canvas benches along the sides of the cargo bay. The planes were loaded with sacks of wheat, boxes of medicine, bicycles, farming equipment, and construction material -- every imaginable item needed by humanitarian aid organization working in the African bush. Sometimes even a battered vehicle Land Cruiser was transported in the cargo plane to be used on the few roads inside Sudan.
There were no regular flights. You went down to the airport and inquired as to when a flight might be going to where you wanted to go, asked to hitch a ride, and climbed aboard. The pilots would drop you off at one of a hundred dirt landing strips in southern Sudan. After you did your work you radioed Loki that you wished to leave. In due course, a cargo plane would land to pick you up, kicking up a cloud of red dust on the improvised runways.
Before planning a trip, all expats were in touch with the UN security officer to find out where they could go and where they shouldn’t because of fighting between the army and rebels.
Maggie spent a week traveling from one remote airstrip to another, wearing the same clothes every day, sleeping in charpoy beds in thatched huts, eating goat stew, wala-wala (boiled millet), and ful (fava beans). At each stop, she met with tall, slender black men and women who accompanied her to project sites where she witnessed the distribution of food to people whose livelihoods had been destroyed by many years of war.
She ended her visit in Rumbek, the center of UN relief operations in southern Sudan. It was a tent city, a smaller version of Lokichogio, with an airstrip, a cafeteria, a bar in an open-sided hut, electricity part of the night, and, mercifully, a small, square concrete building with showers and bathroom facilities. She would spend the night there before returning to Loki the next day.
It was late afternoon when Maggie arrived in Rumbek. She took a shower and cleaned herself up, and headed for the cafeteria for something to eat. The bar was next to the cafeteria. The sight of expats sitting at the round bar drinking cold bottles of Tusker beer lured her. To hell with all this religious pretense, she said to herself, I haven’t had a beer for a month. It’s hotter than hell and I’m thirsty.
She sat on a stool beside a nice-looking young man and ordered a Tusker and a bowl of roasted peanuts. She talked to the young man sitting beside her. He was English, just out of the University where he had studied Swahili and East African culture. He was polite to a fault. She almost kicked him when he called her “ma’am.”
“What’s your name?” she asked as she drained the beer bottle and ordered another bottle and more peanuts.
“Brian,” he answered.
“I’m Maggie,” she said. The crowd at the bar had cleared out. Bedtime was early in the Sudan. The mosquitoes buzzed around and the electricity went off at 10 p.m. She felt a familiar tingle as she talked to Brian. The thought of sex crept into her mind, but she dismissed it, mindful of the possible humiliation of being turned down by a boy who might look on her as impossibly old and unappealing.
The god of good luck intervened. Faye arrived, pulling up beside the bar in a Land Rover with a UN official named Mark. Faye lived in Loki, and Maggie knew her slightly. She was a tall, willowy English girl, about 30 years old, a veteran of several years in Africa, and the reputation of being a Loki slut with an affinity for tall, black Sudanese rebel leaders. Mark was also tall and slender, about 30 years old, and was impeccably dressed in matched shorts and bush shirt. Although he was Swiss, he spoke English with a plummy public school accent which contrasted with Faye’s cockney twang.
Faye and Mark were dusty, sweat soaked, and haggard from a long day in the field. “What a trip,” said Faye. “Now they tell us that all the tents are taken for the night.” The UN tent camp at Rumbek was the only place for hundreds of miles with electricity and running water.
Maggie said, “Faye, you could stay with me in my tent. And Mark, could stay with ... what’s your name again?”
“Mark could stay with Brian.”
Faye whispered in her ear. “Why don’t you stay with Brian? I’ve got a thing for Mark. And Brian is a cute boy.”
Faye turned to Brian. She was anything but shy. “Brian, dear, why don’t you give Mark and I your tent and you stay with Maggie. She won’t mind.”
Maggie hadn’t said that she wouldn’t mind, but the thought of having an attractive man near her, even without sex, appealed to her. She was lonely.
Brian blushed – which made her feel even older -- then smiled, and said, “Of course, if it’s alright with you, Maggie.”
It was, and Brian and Maggie finished their beers and peanuts. Inconspicuously, she grabbed a handful of condoms from the bucket on a table in the bar and put them in her shoulder purse. The UN provided condoms at all its sites. “I’d better start carrying these with me again,” she said to herself, as the two of them left the bar and stumbled drunkenly through the lines of tents. Her tent had little more in it than two twin cots an arm’s length apart, each covered with mosquito netting, plus an electric lamp that would soon be turned off for the night. Brian left to retrieve his back pack from his former tent while she undressed for bed.
“What to wear?” she thought as she undressed. Usually her bedtime apparel was only a loose sleeveless t-shirt leaving her buttocks and pubic area bare. Anything more than that in the heat was uncomfortable. In the low light of the single light bulb, the t-shirt, she judged, was sufficiently modest and she put on panties to greet Brian when he returned. She could take them off once she was beneath the rough sheets of the bed.
Brian called through the flap of the tent. “Are you decent?”
“Yes, come in.”
Maggie was no stranger to men. There was her husband, of course, and over the past six years she had bedded a dozen men who were not her husband. (Being an accountant, she counted carefully.) All her affairs had been when she was traveling on her job. She didn’t risk scandal by extra-marital sex in the small town where they lived.
Her husband may have been suspicions about her activities, but he enjoyed the income she brought to their modest household too much to confront her, and she respected him and her marriage sufficiently to avoid a scandal that might cost him his job as a pastor of a small evangelical church.
Thousands of miles from home, the possibility of scandal was not on her mind, but there was always that awkward moment when a woman is alone with a man for the first time. This moment with Brian was particularly awkward, because she had no inkling whether are or not sex was a possibility.
She greeted Brian with a smile, facing him, not attempting to conceal her body under the skimpy t-shirt and panties. He gave her a nervous smile in return. “We have 15 minutes before lights-out. We can go to bed now, or sit and chat a bit. I have some more peanuts we can eat.”