During the weeks leading up to the rainy season, the weather in Juba, the low-rise and mud-hut capital of the recently established nation of South Sudan, starts to turn on anyone who isn’t prepared for it. Mornings begin breezy, tropical, and pleasant, then undergo an abrupt transformation into wet heat.
One Monday this past March, a group of about 10 Americans—doctors; medical students; construction experts; and two journalists, including me—gathered at the entrance to a riverside camp just at the moment of inflection. A few of us had already been sweating through our shirts for the previous hour. The group’s leader, a 62-year-old woman in black sunglasses, was the only one it didn’t seem to affect. But nothing stops Ellen Ratner, especially not this morning—not the gathering heat, or the jet lag of her charges, or the lateness of a couple of stragglers. “When I say 9 a.m., I mean 9 a.m.,” she bellowed at 9:01. “I’m the beast of Africa!”
Ratner is many things: political journalist, radio personality, self-help author. In New York, she is probably less well-known than her brother, the developer Bruce Ratner, but in the rest of the country, Ellen is a celebrity—a voice heard on 400 radio stations, a regular Fox News contributor, and a frequent guest speaker. An early pioneer of LGBT rights, she and her wife, Cholene Espinoza, are often referred to as a lesbian “supercouple”; before becoming a journalist, she had a significant career as an addiction-recovery therapist.