20 Oct 2021


Book Review: 'White House', By Victor Lugala

"Women close to him, including his girlfriend, Sara, and his own sister, Bianca, who owned a bar, must all be “sleeping with the enemy” Riti said to himself;

02 February 2021
Victor Lugala, White house, Africa World Books, Perth, Australia, ISBN: 978-0-9876141-0-0 paperback, $14.99.

Victor Lugal, a South Sudanese journalist who works and lives in Juba, has been widely published in prose and poetry. Two of his novellas have recently been published by the Australian-based Africa World Books; the first, White house, is reviewed below By Jacob J Akol:

Set at the time of the rebel shelling of Juba in 1992, White house is a skilfully plotted and thrillingly told story that is hard to put down. White House was the notorious State Security headquarters; anyone who was taken there disappeared for good.

The story is of Riti, a photo journalist, who was arrested and taken to the White house, where he was so badly beaten that “If Riti’s mother was to be brought to the container [at the White House] at that moment she would swear by her withered breasts that the young man with a swollen face was not her son” (pp.66-67).

He was sexually assaulted when he was ordered to undress and sit on a long-necked bottle. “Riti”, pronouncing the name with a northern accent, “We don’t have chairs for our visitors. But feel at home. This is your new home. Now, sit on the bottle. That is your royal stool. Sit!” (p.68).

On the fourth day of his detention, “A slender uniformed man entered gingerly as if he was afraid of stepping on a fresh piece of shit. He had curly hair and a heap of moustache that covered his upper lip… The man was smoking a thin roll of marijuana. ‘Who brought you here? Why are you here? What did you do?’ …Riti plucked some courage from his reserve energy to look at the man straight in the face and said, ‘Are you Abbas? The man frowned, surprised. ‘Do you know me?’, the uniformed man asked, as knowing smile lingered. ‘My sister is Bianca. We stay in Atalabara. I am innocent.’” (p.69).

The first time Riti heard of Abbas was when Leila, wife of his ‘disappeared’ friend, Ben, warned him not to go to Sara’s café. “That tea place is a booby trap, if you don’t know…” Leila lowered her voice and said, “Do you know Abbas?” Her voice betrayed her fear. Riti shook his head and said, “No, I don’t know a person by the name. Abbas? No!”

“I don’t know him either but I’m told he is a dangerous man,” said Leila. (p.45).

From then on, the name Abbas came to represent in Riti’s mind everything that was repressive and detestable in Juba: “Who is Abbas? What could he be doing or what has he been doing? Dangerous man! He must be a hit man. An informer. Murderer. Killer. Spy. Bloodthirsty vulture. Fundamentalist. Or is he Mr Lover Man, wife snatcher, girlfriend snatcher, widow inheritor? He thinks he has extra testicles? I don’t know the man but I feel like puking when I hear his name. I don’t want to see Abbas. Your name is already causing me diarrhoea” (p.46).

Women close to him, including his girlfriend, Sara, and his own sister, Bianca, who owned a bar, must all be “sleeping with the enemy”, Riti said to himself; Abbas seemed to be the cog in the wheel of any woman who owned a business like a bar in Juba.

He confronted his sister one evening when she arrived home late: “Sister, aren’t you afraid of breaking the curfew?... And who was that man in the army car?” he demanded. Bianca replied, “Have you become a policeman, a guard or my husband?” Riti removed his slipper and slapped it hard on the ground and said, “I’m the man in this house and I have all the right to ask even if you are my older sister!” “Riti, you want to speak like who in this house? If you are a man enough why don’t you start by buying a kilo of sugar or meat for your mother?” (p.17).

Now, this man in uniform, on his fourth day of detention and after the mention of ‘Abbas’ and his sister Bianca, gave him tea and slippers… and led him to a military jeep, - he must indeed be Abbas himself come to liquidate him, Riti thought. While in the car, the man introduced himself, “My name is Abbas” and never said anything else until the jeep entered the main gate of the Juba University teaching hospital. He dropped Riti there and said, “Greet your sister”.

Riti saw Leila leaving the hospital and called to her but Leila had difficulty recognising him in his filthy clothes and swollen face. When she eventually did, she embraced him, sobbing. While leading him to a ward to see his sister and mother, Leila whispered, “Sara went to Khartoum two days ago. She eloped with a northern soldier. Can you imagine!” (p.72).

In the maternity ward, Riti’s mother pointed at the newly born baby that Bianca was breast-feeding and said, “’Riti, see your little nephew, He came into the world yesterday evening.’ Her voice lacked enthusiasm or happiness” Riti noticed that “The baby had very light skin, almost white. His dark curly hair was pasted on his small head. He had large ears” (p.72).

Sitting alone on the grass under a tree in the hospital compound, Riti’s bitter thoughts were on the baby. “Now she has Abbas junior who will forever keep the history of oppression alive in their family memory. He does not want to be reminded of that ugly history every day.”

His mother joined him on the grass: “My son, whether it was Abbas or God who saved you from death, let’s praise God. Abbas is an exploiter, a murderer... I am not happy at all with Abbas and Bianca. She has brought a curse to this house. She has been going with a man who is a killer of our people…” (p.73).

“Riti,” said Bianca a few days later, “You would have been a dead man, but I tried my best to get you out. I am sorry that I am carrying shame in my arms, but it is shame and abuse that saved your life, Riti. I cannot go into details because it hurts. I’ll remain with the shame for life. Just tell me what day you want to go to Khartoum. I will ask somebody to fly you out.”

Back in his room, Riti resolved, “I am going to Khartoum… I am going to hunt for that traitor called Sara. She used sex as weapon of war to lure me into the crocodile’s jaw. I defied untimely death. I defy oppression of any nature. I’ll fight for freedom. Aluta continua!”

Prof. Taban lo Liyong, said in his foreword to the book (back cover), “If you want to know why South Sudanese broke away from the Sudan, then White house is the novella to read!” I fully agree with him.

Jacob J Akol is a South Sudanese journalist and author of several books, including Burden of Nationality and I Will Go the Distance.

*The review was initially produced for publication by SSSUK in its journal Sudan Studies for South Sudan and Sudan, issue 63, January 14, 2021

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