2003, Turalei, South Sudan, in the month of October, the season of Rule, the end of the harvest
The story you will hear is a strange one. Perhaps you will choose not to believe it. But I am certain you will believe it, you must believe it. I know you have seen things you never thought you would see in your entire life. You have learned things you did not want to learn. You have stepped on these lands, alongside my people, and so you have lived some of this war, khawaja. I am sorry for this.
This story may answer some questions for you, if you are still with us, Insha’Allah. Before you arrived here, perhaps you had heard of terrible things happening in a faraway place, from your newspapers and your television sets. This faraway place is my home, and our stories bear a different kind of burden from what your own land holds.
I am not proud to admit I knew nothing of the outside world before I was captured. I was a simple village girl, married only four years when I was forced to leave my home. One afternoon, not long after I arrived, I wandered into a room I did not yet know I was not allowed in. I was shocked to see a box with colourful moving images. I had heard of television sets, but none had yet arrived to our small village.
Saleh’s Head Wife laughed when she saw the look on my face, and she said to me, “Do you not know what that is, abida? I suppose they do not have television sets in your mud huts, where you live with the monkeys!”
She hated me all the time I was there, and I believe she was happy on that morning eight years later when she found me gone, though it meant she would have to buy another slave to replace me. She did not like the way her husband looked at me. Even when he tried to hide it from her, anyone could see his eyes follow my body in ways they should not. Soon after I arrived I was kept far away from the others, so I would also be far from Saleh’s prowling eyes.
I am much older now. There are days when I feel like an ancient one, my life already spent from my body. There are days when I feel empty inside, and it is as though I can hear the sound of a faint wind blowing through my bones, made thin from all these years past. And there are many dark nights I cannot breathe, for the turbaned horsemen chase me in my dreams.
Since our return home to the south I have been taking care of my father and my two children. We live with my auntie Nyakiir and her daughters in this village, who remain alive and together after it all. We are a good day’s walk from the village in which I was born and raised. Auntie makes the marissa and sells it to the men in the market who want to forget about the war. My job here in these two tukals, which live side by side and hold all of us, is cooking and washing clothes. It is not so different than what I was made to do in Saleh’s house. Though here, of course, I am free.
My father is not well. I tend to him every day. His skin hangs from his bones. He has diseases in his stomach that will not cure. He will no longer eat the food I make for him and I am worried he has little time left. This war has been too hard on him. But my daughter knows her baba now; she knows who came to save her.
A cleansing ceremony was given for my children and me, just after Rith was born, not long after we arrived at Auntie Nyakiir’s place. To thank the ancestors for keeping us alive, with Adhar’s small hand clutched in mine and with Rith swaddled in my arms, we jumped over a goat that Auntie Nyakiir had bought in the market. Afterwards he was slaughtered and became the meat for our feast. There was much dancing and a big re, and our neighbours came to join us, to welcome us home. On this night my father blessed my children with their proper Dinka names, Rith Arop and Adhar Arop, after their ancestors. Even though they have lighter skin, our people now consider them to be pure Dinka. With our one re burning bright under the many small res in the night sky, I thanked the Women, secretly.
I still believe this circle of Women were my ancestors, khawaja. For how could anyone else but those of my blood clan have pushed me through what I had to endure?
The war is almost over, they tell us. The agreement of peace between the leaders of the north and the south will soon be signed. The ones who were lucky enough to ee the madness of all these years past are returning, to help build the country back up again. But alongside this new talk of peace, there is more talk of war. Every day we hear these whispers. They speak of fresh battles occurring not so far away; we hear of people dying by the enemy’s hands in neighbouring villages; we hear of guns stored in the homes of our relatives and friends. Just in case it all begins again. It is too difcult to release this war from our blood, when it long ago shaped who we are, how we live, how we move, how we breathe. Blood has lled this earth up; it has made God angry. We must be forgiven or nothing will change; these wars will continue forever. But we continue to push forward in the name of peace, even though there is still this fear in our hearts, like an open mouth with a hunger that cannot be satised.
It seems like so long ago now, but it is only two seasons that have passed since we made the long trek back from Saleh’s big farm in the north to my auntie Nyakiir’s home here in Turalei. For almost one week we had moved at night and hid during the day in the bush and the reeds of the river so as to avoid the raiders. Rith was kicking against my insides at his own hunger and thirst, as for days we had only eaten bits of bread from Father’s sack. Adhar stopped crying after the rst day of that trek and became silent and listless, stricken with her own heat and hunger. But once we were past the river Kiir I knew we were on safe ground, and lucky to be so. Many people who tried this route from the north did not make it.
Along the route was the spot where my village used to live. My father told me he did not want me to see it. There were too many deaths there, he said, and it was nothing but dust; oating ghosts would creep up on you, sit on your shoulders, and attach themselves to your life. Perhaps they would, but still I insisted, though we were exhausted and hungry from the long trek. I said to Father what Mama had said to me when I was small, that those who die become our angels. They stay here to protect us, to make certain our people do not get wiped off the earth. But then, as I stood in the dusty place that was once my home, and as I felt the ghosts who still lived there, I was only sick and fearful inside.
Copyright © Melanie Schnell, 2012