The smell of clay, warm and wet, rose from the ground and settled into the intense stillness of the Ethiopian air. I could feel it like a leisurely chill in my bones. The family compound in Gambela, Ethiopia was where I was to reside for my two-week stay. Through the metal gates, I could see the carmine soil stretched coolly across the wide territory. A few feet beyond, a group of children stood waiting patiently. The adults, just beyond my vision, arranged themselves hurriedly in an order resembling that of a choir. I knew that I was not in Canada. I was not a student. That it was not 2013, but a time when days belonged to long stretches of gleaming water and waves of sweltering heat. What I knew though, as I passed those metal fences, was the smothering feeling of home. I knew as soon as I saw those indistinguishable faces belonging to my aunts, uncles, and cousins that there exists ancestry, my people. A long lineage that goes back further than the days when man dug for his water under the clouds of suffocating heat.
This is Africa, I reminded myself. All around me faces that I have come to know greeted me in excitement and tears, guiding me to the hut where I was to stay for the night. As I entered the house, I could feel the sharp, stirring scent of burning incense dancing in the air. I observed a decorum of knitted designs running up and down the walls, yellow and white. The carefully tended glass ornaments lay glossy and twinkling on the wooden table.
“Is that you?” I examined an image of a young man in cap and gown, posing triumphantly with a diploma in hand. The man sitting across from me said yes.
HE WAS RIGHT. SUDAN, AT THE TIME, WAS NOT A PLACE THAT COULD AFFORD AN EDUCATION SYSTEM. THE COUNTRY WAS LEARNING A DIFFERENT LESSON: THE ART OF WAR.
Ah, the American, I thought. He must be my uncle. James Duop, my mother’s brother, was the only other sibling apart from my mother, who had left his country of birth and settled in North America.
“It was the only place you could get an education,” my uncle later told me. “Where your mother and I grew up, the only education you’d get was at a U.N. sanctioned refugee camp, and that was if you were lucky.” He was right. Sudan, at the time, was not a place that could afford an education system. The country was learning a different lesson: the art of war.
My parents had stories that sweetly shielded us from Sudanese history. They were benevolent and ingenious tales that would fill the world of my siblings and I with distinct, more grandiose details with each retelling.
“And so it began...” It was always with these words that my mother would start the luminous telling of South Sudan’s ancient history.
Molded from the ten southern states of Sudan, South Sudan is a land of tropical rain forests, swamps, and grasslands. The largest tribes are the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk. Sharing common borders, the Dinka and Nuer tribes, characterized by their tall statures and dark complexions, depended largely on cattle and subsistence farming. They were pastoralists, moving seasonally to regions where they saw fit.
According to legend, Dinka and Nuer were brothers, who existed harmoniously alongside their father, until one day, the father summoned both sons and told them that by sunrise they were to part and go their separate ways. With that, the father divided his cattle between them, giving Neur a cow, and Dinka, a bull. Dinka was angry at his father’s gift, knowing that a cow is clearly more beneficial than a bull, as it is able to produce. Believing that his father favoured his brother, Dinka skillfully devised a scheme to steal his brother’s cow.
AS THE FABLE GOES, THIS WOULD BRING YEARS OF CONFLICT AND STRIFE TO BOTH TRIBES AS THEY STRUGGLED TO COEXIST.
At sunrise, when both his father and brother were sleeping, Dinka took the cow, leaving behind the bull, and went his separate way. Later discovering his son’s betrayal, the father granted Nuer the power to return to him what had been rightfully his. As the fable goes, this would bring years of conflict and strife to both tribes as they struggled to coexist.
“All because of one wrong move,” Uncle James would add. According to him, the fable was an omen, a sign in the action and inaction, the construction and destruction of political life.
It is here, dear reader that I will pause for a moment to provide you with a brief historical account of modern day South Sudan. In the early 1930s, under the reign of British and Egyptian leaders, many Sudanese people began to urge for independence from their imperial governance. In 1955, a civil war between the southern leaders of Anya Nya, a South Sudanese guerilla movement, and the government broke out, eventually resulting in the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement, which granted the south a measure of self-governance.
DURING THIS TIME, THE DINKA AND NUER TRIBES HAD RISEN TO HIGH MILITARY RANK. THEY PREVAILED IN THE LIBERATION MOVEMENT, MAKING THE NOTION OF SOUTH SUDAN BECOMING A NATION-STATE A PROMISING ONE.
In 1983, South Sudan led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and their ally, the Sudan’s Liberation Army, rose again in defiance with the Sudanese government, canceling the autonomy arrangements made in the Addis Ababa agreement. During this time, the Dinka and Nuer tribes had risen to high military rank. They prevailed in the liberation movement, making the notion of South Sudan becoming a nation-state a promising one. When the conflict ended, a referendum was enacted that allowed for South Sudan’s independence from the rest of the country in 2011.
What my uncle referred to as the “one wrong move” was the warrior’s inability to surrender. The Dinka and Nuers regard themselves highly as warriors among the tribes of South Sudan. While the Dinkas can be found in seven of the ten states of the Republic of South Sudan, the Nuers are only in three. Although quaint, if you were Nuer, it meant trouble. Nuer meant aversion, hostility, and most of all, war.
My relative, Nyuon Doyak Boay, recounted the days of conflict and bloodshed during his youth, telling us that during the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of Nuers were displaced. Nyuon Doyak Boay had nowhere to go, no food to eat, and no place that offered security.
“They would round young men up from the age of 14 upwards.” Kuk Tongik Bol another relative would chime in.
“War,” my uncle would say, “is one of man’s greatest struggles, and to live through it, to really see it for the first time, nourishes nothing but tragedy.”
I LOVED LISTENING TO HIS POLITICAL TALKS. INSIDE THE HUT, I WOULD FIND THE FAMILIAR SANCTITY OF MY HISTORY. THERE, I WOULD CURL UP AND LISTEN TO THE GRUMBLES AND PROPHECIES OF MANY AUNTS AND UNCLES SPEAK.
Uncle James was the kind of man who believed he possessed the secrets to the future. Seizing a degree in Political Studies, he had inherited certain notions of American altruism, which his own experience as a refugee had enforced. Upon his release from a position at a hospital, Uncle James was assigned to a federal position in the South Sudanese government. He visited the family complex every afternoon. I loved listening to his political talks. Inside the hut, I would find the familiar sanctity of my history. There, I would curl up and listen to the grumbles and prophecies of many aunts and uncles speak. There in that same hut was where I would find myself, a few days later, listening to three men tell their tales of terror, exile, and violence in current day South Sudan.
It was on my seventh night when three men I did not recognize visited the hut. I listened to the chorus of English and Nuer tongues, which continued uninterrupted through the thunder and lightning and occasional power surges. As my uncle introduced the guests, a certain stillness occupied the room. The men that sat before me were soldiers, belonging to some of the worst nights in Sudanese history.
It was on the eve of December 15 in 2013, they narrated, where Juba, one of South Sudan major cities, was lit up in a frenzy of howls and artillery, quickly setting ablaze the rest of the country.
I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT, THERE SITTING IN FRONT OF ME WERE THE MEN RESPONSIBLE FOR SAVING ONE OF SUDAN’S MOST WANTED MEN.
The President of South Sudan revealed to his citizens that this clash was a result of his vice president’s attempts at a military coup. The President Salvir Kiir Mayardit, a Dinka, had plans to dismiss his former vice-president, a Nuer, along with other his other high-ranking military officials.
“None of it was true,” the soldiers told us. “It was a war of power, a conflict that stems back years and years.”
“It was our mission to get him out,” a different soldier added.
I couldn’t believe it, there sitting in front of me were the men responsible for saving one of Sudan’s most wanted men. I could only imagine that night of escape. As an influential political figure, the Nuer man’s last day must have lingered like a beacon on a gray motionless night. His frail figure pacing back and forth, limited to only the vision of rows of rusty guards sent to protect him. On the other side of the street, the opposition must have crouched in combat position, aiming their guns to his head. He must have watched his time flick away at their stretched seconds and expensive minutes. He must have called everything off, a time in which he realized was critical in his life. The possibilities of what could have occurred that night occupied me endlessly. I tried to imagine the progress of his life--had it been orderly or chaotic?
“And may this war be resolved peacefully,” my grandmother prayed. My grandmother was always praying, a woman of good faith.
“Did the fighting ever get close to you?” I asked her. My grandmother’s answer danced around her tongue for a while.
“There was quiet a bit of disagreements between tribes, sometimes, sure.” My grandmother said.
My mother would later reveal that my grandmother was quite a survivor. My grandmother was not a large woman, her cleverness, however, made up for it. Although she could look delicate and slender like the heart of softwood, it would be more accurate to compare her to the tough sturdiness of hardwood. Her beauty was not in vain. Rather it was a different sort, raw and intelligent. What came with her was a self-assuredness and easy grace that liberated rather than hindered.
“Well, there’s one story I’ll always remember,” My grandmother continued, “I come from a family of famers. There are rituals, routines, days and nights of hard work. I can tell you all the things a farmer does to keep herself busy. We were also fighters, protectors of our people. When trouble came our way, we stood in defense. This was especially critical in the previous months, for our tribe recently dissolved a feud with the Anyauk tribe. This conflict had stifled many of the resources of the Anyauk. Unlike, the Anyauk, we Nuers, would migrate collectively from place to place depending on the season. We did not need to worry or carry much with us. Our cattle was our livelihood.
The Anyauk tribe sought to reconcile and restore the peace that was once on our land. Word had been sent that they were giving gifts and food as offerings; bring 50 of your women they said. At this time, I had just given birth to my third child, and at six months old, food was crucial for her. I went alongside 49 other Nuer women, and three male escorts. We endured lengthy days and nights, passing through the outskirts of our village, into the dense forests, and out again towards the fenced off terrain of the Anyauk. At our arrival, a group of men rounded themselves up and welcomed our male companions. Curiously, we took our first steps, one foot in front of the other, parting the circle of men as we went along.
OUR IMPRISONMENT, THEY ASSURED, WAS ONLY A WAY FOR THEM, THE ANYAUK, TO RESTORE THEIR RESOURCES, THEY CONFIRMED NO HARM WAS TO COME TO US. THE DEAL FOR EACH WOMAN’S FREEDOM WAS THE PAYMENT OF SIX COWS.
As I looked slightly to my left, I sensed the swiftness of a silhouette off in the distance. Before I could contemplate my next steps, it happened. A stampede of women lunged forward from behind me. Two men of the Anyauk tribe shouted and began to point their spheres at us. The men gathered us all, and explained that the area we were was to be our place of residency from now on. Our imprisonment, they assured, was only a way for them, the Anyauk, to restore their resources, they confirmed no harm was to come to us. The deal for each woman’s freedom was the payment of six cows. A couple of days had passed, with no signs of delivery. A couple more and we noticed our three male companions went missing. It became unbearable, thinking of what was to happen next. I had my daughter with me, who survived on very little nourishment. Mushrooms! How I hated mushrooms!
On the six or seventh day, one of the girls I knew heard a rumor that we were all going to be killed, whether the Anyauk received the cows or not. The three men, she said, were dead. At this moment, all of us froze, because we all knew the awful reality. Another girl suggested we ought to escape. I couldn’t do it, I have a child, I reminded her. But I knew right away that the only way to survive was to flee from this place by any means necessary.
MY GRANDMOTHER CONTINUES TO RUN, CONSTANTLY SPRINTING TOWARDS A BETTER SOUTH SUDAN. SHE HAD ALWAYS GRIPPED THE LINE BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, AND I COULD ONLY IMAGINE THE LESSON SHE TRIED TO TEACH ME WITH THE STORY OF HER DAYS AWAY FROM HOME.
At nightfall, the two women and I prepared for our departure. Gathering our belongings, we slid across the cold grounds and made our way into the dark trees enveloped in nightfall. One of the ladies I was with struggled greatly with her belongings. With a final thud, others were alerted nearby and quickly gathered to the source. I ran into the nearby bushes and didn’t stop running. Nope, not for a long time.”
My grandmother continues to run, constantly sprinting towards a better South Sudan. She had always gripped the line between the living and the dead, and I could only imagine the lesson she tried to teach me with the story of her days away from home.
“I don’t think about it too much,” My grandmother would later say. “It does you no good.” She was a woman who dedicated herself to the luminous motion of the African soul and trans-migrant of the ancestral spirit.
SHE WAS A WOMAN WHO DEDICATED HERSELF TO THE LUMINOUS MOTION OF THE AFRICAN SOUL AND TRANS-MIGRANT OF THE ANCESTRAL SPIRIT.
My final days in Gambela were events that I looked forward to with real enthusiasm. Nothing I had witnessed so far would prepare me for the lavishness of the concluding culinary feast. Traditionally, when someone goes back to their place of origin, it is cause for great triumph and celebration. Something new was being prepared that day, with the kitchen becoming a place of infinite possibilities. Marinated meat sizzled in frying pans. Plates of dough lay covered under a translucent fabric. Bowls were full of the heaping contents of wine coloured peppers, leafy vegetables, and golden ears of corn.
Even though I had no role to play in these elaborate preparations, I was part of something virtuous and pure. I know something about my family history. I know all too well my mother’s singular sorrow over the one defining moment in her life, fleeing the dangers of a collapsing country and making the escape herself. I know she creates in herself a path through which she could go back home and live as she once did. I know of her dreams of a reunion, and her desire for South Sudan to be delivered from the depths of war and violence into the relative calm and community of its own independence.