A South Sudanese Childhood
The following piece was written following a number of recordings that I did with a contributor to Life Story On The Road who wishes to remain anonymous.
I am from South Sudan. My parents were cattle farmers. For us, cattle are where we get our milk and meat from, which is what makes us stronger and taller. The smoke from burning their dung reduces mosquitoes and we use it as fertilizer. Their urine is used for dying human hair brown. We arrange marriage with cattle – at least fifty head of cattle are given as a dowry but if the bride is from the right side of town, it can rise up to a hundred head. If you kill someone, you can pay that in cattle, again usually fifty.
We are not connected to the rest of the world like other countries, in that we are not connected to it at all. I guess we look in and not out. I don’t know why that is. Someone told me that some tribes, during the colonial period had been such a nuisance to the British, that they closed the south of Sudan off from the rest of the world, only allowing missionaries in, but that was almost a hundred years ago, you would think that we’d have learned to talk to other people by now.
So, we look in, at what? Well, at our land for a start. Our land has caused us a lot of trouble but we still love it, we believe that it represents our ancestors, we swear on the land, not on our mother’s life. When we eat, we leave portions on the ground. Who gets the land is important, perhaps more important than anything else, but isn’t it that the case anywhere in the world? Our main goal is to marry and reproduce children, especially sons, you got to have sons. See, we do believe in a heaven to come but still our salvation is in the continuation of our name, our line. Our immortality lies in the continuation of the line. If my brother dies, I will marry a woman and make sure that our children are named after him, so he can become immortal. Or if my brother dies leaving a widow, we must find someone to live with her to continue bearing children in his name. We’re all about the genealogy, you would think for a country that is so into its genealogy, that we wouldn’t try to annihilate the entire population? But, we did.
But yeah, we like our cows we do. Young men and women go through a lot of stress trying to find good grazing spots for their cattle, which can be great distances from their village. You wouldn’t believe the heat and the hunger and the threat of cattle rustlers and wild beasts, it’s like the American Plains at the time of the Wild West, like the way your great-great-great-great Grandfathers went about things.
Everything was going okay. But then we went and found what the what is and now we are known for our brutality, our starvation, our destitution, our refugees. What is that? The what? Well, God asked man –
‘What one shall I give you Man? There is the cow and the thing called What, which of the two do you want?’
The man said
‘I do not want the What.’
‘What is better than the Cow?’
The man said ‘No.’
Then God said,
‘If you like the Cow, you had better taste its milk before you choose it finally.’
The man squeezed some milk in his hand, tasted it and said,
‘Let us have the milk and never see the What.’ *
I think I have seen the what. Who knows, what is the what? I am thirty-one but the world thinks I am twenty-one. You know those figures you read about it South Sudan? You know them, they start by saying, we are the youngest nation in the world, and then it goes down-hill – two and a half million dead, two million internally displaced, two million refugees. Well, we were part of those figures. Me, my parents and my sisters. In 1991, a pack of armed groups rampaged through our village and destroyed it. I was four years old. We walked over five hundred miles across South Sudan and over the Kenya border, with armed rebels tracking us, wild animals preying on us, starvation eating into us, dehydration driving us mad; just like Moses and the Promised Land that some of you worship and some of you think is a fairy tale – well we did it, while the world mourned for Gianni Versace, while Pathfinder landed on Mars, while you guys poured into cinemas to watch Titanic, while Harry Potter was first published, while you mourned Princess Diana, while you mourned Mother Teresa.
We moved in a wandering pack, bits of kids straggling along, not knowing whether their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers were dead or alive. We were lucky, my father could not speak and so he needed us as much as we needed him. So he stayed near us. If we were by ourselves, we would have ended up dying. Most people moving by themselves died. Have you ever been thirsty? I mean really thirsty? Like after you run a 10k and someone passes you a bottle of cold water? Or when you are hungover or eat something salty and you gulp and gulp water from the tap? Take that and multiply it infinitely. Days and days walking underneath the Saharan sun, it’s like a sauna, you are stomping for days in a sauna, you can’t breathe, you are dreaming of water, dreaming of droplets on your tongue. You start to go mad, mad, mad. Till you will do anything, like drinking your mother or father’s urine. And yes, that’s what we did, we drank the urine of our parents and that’s how we survived and others didn’t. That we were willing to do that and others weren’t or they never even thought of something so vile, that was the difference, that is how we were saved. Our Mom told us you may die later, but if you do not take this, you will die now.
We were like animals wandering for water. You didn’t know where the water was. You got lucky or you didn’t. I saw a lot of people killed, some shot, some bludgeoned. When I see dead bodies now, it means nothing. Nothing. There was no one to help us. People were all struggling, just get to the border, to Ethiopia, Libya, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan even. We never ate, never, nothing, perhaps a husk a week. I was four years old on the long march. What are your memories of when you were four? Thousands of refugees with my story flooded in. So yeah, you’ve heard all the stories before, and they become run of the mill but Jesus, this was awful. We arrived there, half naked, no clothing, no shoes, not even sandals. UN agents collected us in a big truck that people use for carrying garbage, that’s what they put us in, two hundred of us, scraps of people, that’s how we crossed into Kenya at Lokichogio and onto Kakuma refugee camp.
Kenya is very hot compared to my village. It’s totally desert. There were few trees for shade. You struggle and fight for that tree, if you are strong enough you take the tree. There was disease but at least there was no killing in the camp. You could get free water, free medication and free education. From where we came from, Kakuma was a small paradise, funny what can become Paradise.
And at last I got some schooling. Imagine a child who was never taught anything. Imagine what they would be like? Wild? Crazy? Brilliant? Natural? I don’t know, but that was me, I was ten years old and could not count, did not know the alphabet. I was ten years old and had to attend infant school. You are not young but you have to go to school with the five year olds and even they were better than me. I struggled for two years. I practiced everything like a song – 1,2,3, – A,B,C. I was sitting at the back of the class on a bench like a giant, if I sat down without four of them on the bench, those on it would be catapulted into the air. It was humiliating, people looking into the classroom, pointing, laughing.
But I had to do it, my parents were telling me that it was all down to me, if I did not make it, we were all finished. I suppose we had nothing, so we were starting from the trash. All of your alternative music is based on the idea of the lazy adolescent, sleeping in, rebelling; here I was, ten years old, being told that the family fortune was down to me, that I had to get us out of Kakuma. What were they doing? Well, my father could not do much, he was deaf, he was just sitting at home. And my mother? I don’t know, what could she do? She hung out with the other women, talking about our villages, how we crossed, who was dead, who was alive. Eventually, after four years she got a job with the World Food Programme, serving people food and grain. Four years out there in the real world is a long time, but there in Kakuma, time is nothing. You sit and you wait.
Money is another concept that out there where you are, wherever you are, is everything, but in Kakuma, you don’t see it, it barely exists, imagine no possessions? One day in 2000, I found twenty Kenyan schillings. I was going to the field to play football and I found twenty schillings, it was small money but also big. I gave it to my Mam, and I asked her to cook us something, but she refused, thinking that I had stolen it. I pleaded with her, but she would not relent. It’s like that story about the guy hanging from a tree over a flooded river, so he prays to God to help him. Later, a guy comes by in a canoe and offers to help him but the guy on the tree says, ‘no I am waiting for God to help me.’
So I went to the market and bought 1kg of sugar. I brought it to my mother and asked her ‘please make me something with this’, she refused again. I traded it for 5kg of wheat flour, then sold that to different people, each kilo for ten schillings, so I had profit, so I thought, this could be a good business, so I continued like that, trading and bartering and making small profits. I had a 20km circuit, carrying 25kg sacks around it, selling stuff and then heading off to the market which was 15km away to buy more.
I would go home wrecked, hide the money, and get balled at for not doing the chores. Back out I would go for water, 20 liters of water in a jerry can on one side and 20 liters in a jerry can on the other side, ten-fifteen minutes there and ten-fifteen minutes back, five times. Jesus, like a little ant, crushed under the weight but somehow managing it. We needed it for cooking, washing clothes and drinking. Only me. My family would say to me ‘If you don’t do this, who will do it?’ Each family looked after themselves in the camp. Our family was few, so it was all down to me, there was no one to share duties with. If I did not do it, they beat me, properly beat me. I did that for four years, what a way to spend your adolescence, Jesus. Get this, get that, everything to me was a condition, a condition, a condition.
I kept going at it until I had three thousand schillings, it was too much for me, it was too dangerous, I was too young. So, I went to my mother and tried to convince her to take it, but again she refused, my God. So I went to my father, and told him, ‘Take this money and do business with it, I am going back to continue with school.’ And thank God he took it, and started a business and it grew and he set up a small shop.
Ever hear of John Garang? That’s who I wanted to be. He was like William Wallace. At the age of ten, his world was turned upside down, just like me. He believed in some great stuff, he believed that we were Sudanese and that we should be linked by that and not the other stuff, just that, being Sudanese rather than being Arab, or being Black, or being Christian, or being Muslim. I was depending on the rebels to get me out of the camp, if they succeeded, we could go home. When I was young, I would run with the exercising soldiers, they would ask me,
‘Why are you running with us?’
And I would say ,
‘Because I like what you do, and one day I will be you.’
‘Why?’ they would ask.
I would reply, ‘Because your leader is John Garang and I want to be like Garang and you will grow old and I will replace you.’
Also, I was depending on the artists, those who were marking our experience. Also, I was depending on journalists. They were collecting data on what was happening and they were updating us about the war. So I was hoping, one day, one time, I would return. It wasn’t certain, Kakuma camp is still open and there are some people who have been there for over thirty years, imagine, thirty years in a refugee camp.
I was in the camp for thirteen years. Thirteen years, it’s a long time, but you know, Kakuma became a town, a city, a home. To be honest, I really liked Kakuma, I was getting everything free and most importantly I was getting an education. It was not just a camp, it was a city where you met people from all across Africa – Rwandans, Somalis, Kenyans, Ethiopians and Sudanese – so I got to meet people from all these other countries and cultures and learn their beliefs, their behavior, their language. I can greet people in Somali, Turkana and Aramaic. And there were tribes from all across South Sudan living there that I would never have got to meet in my village.
So, I suppose the world came to me in Kakuma, but I had never been out in it, I mean the world, not really, just my village, and the long march. To be honest, I wasn’t all that eager to get back out there. But when I was twenty-three, I managed to get a cousin sponsor who was willing to pay for my secondary school education in Rift Valley Province (Nakuru District) Kenya. And so, after ten years, I left Kakuma. It was the first time that I was alone, but I had to do my studies. I missed the camp. But I had to do it, my family was depending on me. Everyone in the school was much younger than me, so I had to reduce my age, otherwise they would not allow me in the school, so I chopped ten years off. I pretended as best I could that I was thirteen, what do you do? Giggle and skit and stuff, but they knew, they must have known, but they let me stay. I guess because I took on so much responsibility in the school. After all, I was a man and had endured so much, I was naturally going to be a leader at the school. I became the main boy that organized everyone. The day that I left, everyone in the school was crying, students and teachers. You would not believe what someone like me can do. A student and teacher cannot go it alone, it is like putting a goat in with a leopard. I became the bridge between the two.
We studied English, Math, Kiswahili, Physics, Chemistry, Agriculture, Geography and History. The sponsor was providing me with eighteen thousand Kenyan Schilling, which is equivalent to three hundred USD, which was the exact amount of my tuition fee, so I had nothing extra. Nothing for my uniform or a pen or food. I could not go back to the sponsor. So, I did so much work in school, that they paid half of my school fee and then I had the other half to cover my other expenses. I was there for four years, I did it, I graduated and at last I was educated.
I eventually got back to South Sudan. I returned to my village for the first time in seventeen years. I did some teaching but there was no money to be made. Stuff there had changed utterly, or maybe I had changed utterly. I moved to the city, to Juba and I landed a job with a telecommunications company as a marketing executive and worked my way into management. Later I was headhunted by the CEO of a water company to join his company as a marketing manager where I worked for one year. Now I am with an international aid organization who are on the ground here in South Sudan. So, I did it, the American dream in South Sudan. Well almost, this is Africa, individualism doesn’t work here. I brought my family to Juba one by one and then my uncle’s family who are now dependent on me. I am the elder. In my culture, I am the man who is responsible to take care of those families. I am carrying all the responsibilities of my families. A father of many families, yet I can never marry because I need money to marry and all my money goes to my families, each day I get three phone calls for help and money.
It’s not happily ever after for South Sudan either. In 2013 and 2016, war broke out again. The place where I was hiding was captured by rebels. It was properly destroyed while I was hiding under the bed in my living room, three hours later the government took over and I survived, again. I have seen so many dead people since I was young, I am still seeing dead people. I have buried ten people myself. But I cannot be afraid, if you give me a gun and tell me go and fight, I will go and fight, but if you ask me what is the advantage of fighting? I will tell you that there is no advantage. Education is better, it gives you ideas and it gives you something to live for. But if it is fighting, I am good to go, but I would prefer the other way. My job now is to take care of three big families, with sixteen children and provide schooling, medication, food and accommodation. Still condition, still condition, still condition. So I tell myself, it is a condition that I must accept, that I must do it.
*Deng, Francis M. “The Cow and the Thing Called ‘What’: Dinka Cultural Perspectives on Wealth and Poverty.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 52, no. 1, 1998, pp. 101–129.