Sometimes life has a way of turning things around or working itself out. You meet new people and form alliances in the most unexpected places. Your most dreaded assignments turns out to be the most memorable ones and you remember with more fondness.
I had the opportunity to go to Africa last year. At that time, I thought it was more of a curse than a blessing to be sent there by the NGO I was working for back then. I had sleepless nights prior to the trip as scenes from the movies "Blood Diamond" and "Black Hawk Down" kept popping in my mind. Blame it on the media for painting such a terrorizing image of Africa. But the adventurer in me accepted the challenge and embraced it with a brave heart. I took comfort in the thought that my bosses would not send me there had they thought it would be dangerous for me. And so I hopped on a plane and after a 24hr travel covering thousands of miles of land and sea, my traveler's feet stepped on African soil for the very first time.
It was there that I met two of the nicest guys on earth.
If my memory serves me right, I first heard about him in late 2007 when he joined our organization as Program Manager of one of our field offices in the African region. Based on the sound of his name, I figured he must be some bossy unapproachable type of guy. Since I was not handling the accounts of his program that time, I never really had a chance to validate that idea. After about a year, the program ended and he left.
The first Skype chat I had with him was during my first mission trip in Juba in June 2009. A few nights before going home, in the loneliness of my container, he suddenly appeared in Skype and started bombing me with questions about the capital city of South Sudan – living conditions, entertainment, etc. I asked if he was planning a return and he said it was a big possibility but for a different organization. So imagine my surprise when before that night ended, my bosses informed me that he just accepted the soon to be vacated PM post of our Juba office! Man, was that fast!
The months that ensued were a challenge for both of us as we tried to put heads or tails on the highly complex program we were tasked to handle while on the opposites sides of the earth. Not to mention the never-ending series of unfortunate events that seems to plague that particular program. Corresponding mainly thru e-mail and Skype was not as effective as we hope it could be considering the terrible internet connection they have in the field. By the 3rd quarter of the year, the problem with the accounts had escalated to alarming levels that the big bosses requested me to go back there to assist.
So after 3mos of remote assistance, I finally met him in the flesh under the scorching hot Juba sun. He welcomed me with a big smile and a warm hug. His tall, lanky frame towered me that I looked like a hobbit beside him.
For 1.5mos we worked together to keep the project afloat. One can only make so much in such short time and we might still have missed a lot of things but hell, I can honestly say we tried our best. In that period, I came to know more of him and I realized that he was not the bossy, unapproachable person that I initially thought he was. He was actually a sweet and friendly guy.
He was my boss but he made me feel like we were (almost) equals. He does not even like being called “boss”. One time I jokingly called him that and he raised his eyebrows on me. On several occasions our thoughts are almost in synch that, as he said, we were on the same frequency. There are still things we disagreed on but he still listened to what I had to say. We shared the same sentiments on work and family. He understood and fully supported a decision I had to take even if it means “abandoning” what we had started with the program. He knows how to appreciate the little things and how not to sweat the small stuff. He has great sense of humor and knows when to crack a joke to lighten up the mood. Somebody told me before that he was a charmer and he was, he really was.
Completing our triumvirate was a young guy from the chocolate kingdom who handled the operation side of the spectrum. He was a complete stranger when we first met, a mere 3-letter name mentioned casually in my pre-departure conversations with the PM and the bosses in HQ.
It was only on my 2nd week of stay when we started talking to each other. He was the one who broke the ice when he invited me to join him and his friends to go out on a Friday night. Maybe it was just my low self-esteem but the fact that he came out of his way to invite me was such a big deal. Needless to say, we started talking and hanging out more after that night. When he does not have to go anywhere, he stayed in the Finance Office with his 80’s playlist humming in the background. He was our alarm clock that never failed to remind us when it was time to eat. With his blinding fair skin, he was like a walking sunshine as he bellows a “good morning” greeting to everybody at the breakfast table. Amidst the problem of lacking personnel, he became a part-time Admin, Accountant, Logistician, Driver and Mechanic (and even tour guide) on top of his regular duties as EOD. He was a jack-of-all-trades and rarely complained.
Leaving Juba at the end of my mission was both a joyous and a painful occasion. I was happy that finally I am going home to my family as I have missed them so much. But at the same time, tears were falling for friends that I’ll be leaving behind. Friends that, in most probability, I might never see again.
As we now go on with our separate lives (away from Juba), I hope that the struggles we went through together in that short time bonded us in such a way that this friendship we started will be able to transcend distance and time. Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again soon….Inshallah*.
*Arabic for “God-willing”