It was with trepidation that I landed on the bush strip near the old child soldier base where Jeremy had been cast naked into the pit. When they let him run for his life, the SPLA wildly and humorously fired automatic weapons until he was out of sight. As the commander later told me in passable Cuban Spanish, they didn’t mean to hurt him, only offer a lesson in where not to stick his dick.
I was traveling with other journalists working for various international media publications. We were there to render a food review of the latest Gromenschmidt-Gramski offering in the heretofore overlooked market of Torit, South Sudan.
The Gromenschmidt-Gramski team was well known among aficionados of no-frills food. They had built their reputation upon a lack of menus, the roughest of service, limited choices, low prices, and a bone thin adherence to satisfying the minimal caloric needs of diners. The buzz for this new venture, however, was a reputed drastic change in the food. Radio messages had crackled how the old reliance upon palm oil and US Food for Peace wheat was to be changed in favor of pasta and smoked cheese from the overstocked warehouses of Europe. This innovation was what had brought me to this spot in the sun, beneath large circling black birds.
The word was out and the expectant crowd for the opening was tremendous. The line stretched into a dust haze and then disappeared into the bush. Kudos to the marketing team, but with the drought, famine, and continued fighting, their work was only pro forma. I immediately wondered if the wait time was going to exceed three days. Wait times were a problem at the other Gromenschmidt-Gramski locations and I was troubled that their management team had made no improvements at the new site. My worst fears were soon realized. Many diners told me they had been waiting over a week. Some mothers held dead babies in their arms. There was obviously work to be done on this issue.
I was unimpressed with the physical layout. Little thought had been given to the structures housing the food. Design and color combinations were typical. I did not see much novelty in the décor or ambiance that should have fostered a pleasant dining experience. Unfortunately, Station #3 was caught in the same old rut. A number of flatbed trucks piled high with sacks of pasta and boxes of what appeared to be smoked cheese were in a long line that ran directly between two massive white tents. There was confusion at the metal stage where individual sacks of pasta were essentially being thrown at the clientele. The cheese distribution was no better. Wait staff were in light blue uniforms and brandished whips and truncheons. Some were armed with side pistols. People were shouting and arguing over strips of cheese that resembled leather belts. In all, I had to give very low marks for service and presentation. When I witnessed the adult patrons eating raw pasta, I was, frankly, horrified. The Dinka, who were the primary customers at #3 Station, didn’t seem to understand pasta. I got the feeling they had never seen it before.
Later, when I was back in Nairobi eating at the Hotel Serena, I decided to forgo dessert and return to my room to write the review. I wanted to be fair to the Gromenschmidt-Gramski combine, but I simply could not bring myself to write another favorable article based solely on multilateral politics and kickbacks of free tickets to Cirque du Soleil in Macau. Those days were over for me and anyway, the death rate around Torit was running about 30/10,000/ day and it didn’t seem the pasta and smoked cheese were doing much good.
In the final copy of the review, I savaged the opening of the #3 Station UNHCR/World Food Program, South Sudan. My last few words went something like this: Perhaps with time, the management of Gromenschmidt-Gramski will improve, but until then, they literally have blood on their hands. I can only give one star, and that is a stretch of my dying, well-bathed, personal ethics.
The editor of the magazine I worked for cut the last line. He thought I had written it drunk, but I wasn’t drunk, I was only suicidal. I eventually got over my depression with a posting to Thailand. All those dead and disappointed Dinkas, who never made it out of Torit and the #3 Station, slowly morphed into the H’Mong and opium and small women who wrapped themselves around my waist.