Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday
Tonga, March 2007 :

We had left Malakal the morning before, crossing the Nile by boat. A truck met us on the other side to take us to William and Simon Deng’s childhood village. We drove for three hours along the eastern bank of the river through a parched landscape, dotted only here and there by villages and spots of green. We passed the carcasses of dead cows lying by the side of the road. They were dropping like flies from a disease nobody could identify, despite all the necessary vaccinations.

About half-way we made a stop. The road had veered further inland, away from the banks of the Nile and its tributaries, and with each turn of the road the landscape ahead looked more desolate. We had arrived at the kingdom of the Shilluk king. Simon hoped for an audience with the king. A uniformed soldier told us to wait by a small tree and said he would see if the king would receive us. We waited a good hour. I had been told to turn my camera off – this was not the king’s actual kingdom, only a temporary hiding place of sorts, until he felt safe from possible attacks by GoS-backed militia or other enemies.

It struck me as odd to choose a place that was so exposed. The landscape was completely flat and lifeless, the baked earth cracked, the trees barren. “If he agrees to meet with us you will have to take your shoes off here and walk barefoot to that tukul”, Simon laughed. I looked up at the large tukul he was pointing to – it was a good 30 meters away. I was almost relieved when an hour later the soldier sauntered back to us to say the king would not have time for us today.

We did eventually manage to meet with the King a few days later. He offered us strong black tea to drink and popcorn to munch on. Wearing the traditional Shilluk dress, a bright pink “lao” (toga), large-framed lady’s sunglasses, enormous gold bracelets around his arms, and coiffed in dishevelled dreadlocks, he asked with a soft bemused smile, “ gentle lady, do you have a question you would like to ask me?”

… to be continued …