James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Rum Diplomacy in South Sudan

Rum Diplomacy in South Sudan

Zacapa in South Sudan

I sit under the buzz of fluorescent lights in Dubai airport as I wait for a flight to Juba, South Sudan, where my next communications consultancy will be. Bored, I get up and wander over to browse the tiny duty free shop. I am surprised to find Zacapa rum, a drink I fell in love with it when I lived in Guatemala. At almost US$80 a bottle, it’s prohibitive compared to the US$40 I am used to paying. We have a stare down, and eventually my gut says go for it.

Once in Juba I, spend most of my time in the IDP camps, interviewing pregnant women for a UN agency that focuses on reproductive health. I live in a hotel with an unfortunate name: Virgin Hotel. My neighbor across the hall is Armand from Madagascar, a charming senior project manager for UNICEF, tapped to mitigate the skyrocketing rate of child mortality in Bentiu. When the weekend comes I am happy when he asks me to join him for dinner down the “road”. We navigate our way through mud, pot holes, and garbage using the lights from our cell phone to guide us through the dark. On the way back, I feel a bit euphoric for the first time since arriving, and I ask Armand if he has ever tried Zacapa.

Zacawhat? He responds.

Back at the hotel we sit outside enjoying the heady, caramel notes of the rum when my other neighbor walks by. He is a South Sudanese diplomat, and always carries two signature items: a gorgeous wooden walking stick inlaid with gold specks, and a small speaker that always plays reggae. Tonight it’s Lucky Dube’s “Prisoner”. We are on friendly terms, but it’s safe to say he hates everyone who works for the UN. (I know this because one night in a drunken rage he tore apart his room screaming about how he hates everyone who works for the UN.)

I invite him for a nightcap and he joins. There we sit, a motley crew at a plastic table in the parking lot, beside a sleeping security guard with an Israeli assault rifle propped up beside him. We drink a little too much rum, and stay up a little too late in the sticky Juba heat.

I collapse into bed and fall asleep remembering that I made plans to visit a Doctors Without Borders clinic in the camp the next morning. I say a little prayer that I don’t feel hungover. I wake up early and hangover-free. I gratefully glance at the bottle on my desk and notice we had ploughed through about three quarters of it. Just like that, the sweet Central American nectar is almost gone. With the generous UN allowance I am getting, I wonder why I ever debated buying the bottle in the first place and chastise myself for not picking up a few more.

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