Jan 292010

Mulberry Trees and Peanuts
May 2007, soon after my first trip to Sudan.

Sudan was astonishing – so very beautiful, and of course so much suffering. But the people I encountered – villagers, “refugees” (or rather the IDPs – people displaced within Sudan by war, famine, and discrimination), the “freed slaves”, the Lost Boys – were all so sweet and wise and dignified. The IDPs in the make-shift camp we visited are in such a desperate situation, they have close to nothing to sustain them other than hope, a few roots and leaves, some very poor looking chickens and goats. They simply don’t have enough food, nor do they have enough clean drinking water, and there is no medicine what-so-ever … they seem forgotten to the world but for the blue plastic UN tarps that make for a roof, held-up by a few sticks, which is their only shelter. Just outside their “camp” were two immense but empty white warehouses with the letters WFP (World Food Program) in bold black letters written on either side. And yet all that they ask for is teachers for their children, some seed and tools so they can grow their own food, and medicine of course for the sick – and so many are sick, they die of the simplest illnesses. And still they smile and laugh and thank one for coming to see them.

We travelled quite a bit – by plane, by truck, on foot, throughout northern Bar el-Ghazal, which is just south of Darfur. One day we were about 15 miles south of the border with Darfur. It is savannah country mostly, flat, hot, few leaves on the trees to really give one cover, except for these stunning mulberry trees, which lie at the centre of the villages. For two days we set-up camp under a mulberry tree that was the “community center” for the village. This was Christian country – the villagers had carved large crosses into the trunk of the tree and had built their church under its shade. The church was just a column of branches that held-up a straw roof, the pews also were made of branches, bound together with straw, but they were strong – during Sunday service groups of ten or more sat on them, singing, swaying, dancing and tapping with their feet to the rhythm of the drums played by young boys and the singing of their pastor.

The church compound was fenced in by an elaborately woven straw fence, golden, slightly waved. There were four tukuls (mud and straw huts) that made-up the community center: one was a guest house, where the pastor also sleeps, and where I took refuge on the first night during a thunderstorm – my tent was utterly useless in the rain so Pastor Simon insisted I take his bed, he slept on the floor; another tukul was for storage and the animals in bad weather; the third was where the women cooked; and the fourth was an outhouse. In one corner of the compound the fence made a small circle with only a slender opening, closed from view. That was the bathing area. The women carry fresh well water to the bathing corner every morning for everyone to have a wash. And then they cook breakfast, which is taken around 2 pm.

I ate all the local food – fragrant, spicy broths with chicken, goat, beef, or fish; sorghum pancakes, wheat bread similar to pita bread, and rice to soak-up the broth; sometimes there was okra, and a bean stew. But each meal included two kinds of meat or fish, bread and rice, and one vegetable. I watched the women prepare the food, saw how they ceremoniously washed the meat and fish and vegetables. The best and most tender meat went to the children, and every bit of the animal goes into the broth – except for the ‘unclean’ parts. They cook over an open fire of course. They washed our clothes for us as well. And ironed them too.

At all hours you hear singing. And at night the world becomes magical. It was full moon while we were there and the villagers celebrated the coming of the new moon. Out of the stillness and cool of the night – no cars, no electricity – you could hear children playing and giggling, old men singing traditional prayers, occasionally a BBC news report from someone’s short-wave radio, and the animals calling. The songs of course are mostly call-and-response and even the goats participate. They seem to respond to the men’s voices. One night we walked through the savannah in the moonlight to find the “slaves” who had been bought out of bondage earlier that day. I didn’t film this because of the low light. That was a mistake. I could have gotten something, sort of impressionistic black and grey. It was so beautiful. The shadows of the tukuls and the mulberry trees, the gnarled trunks of dead trees, families waving and calling out blessings at passers-by from their beds that they had pulled out of their tukuls to sleep under the stars and the moonlight. No one knew exactly where the “slaves” were out in the savannah surrounding our compound. So we wandered about in the moonlight for a good forty minutes, asking villagers as we passed-by their tukuls if they had seen a large group of boys and men clad in white Arab galabias and turbans.

The Dinka Tribe is largely Christian, or animist, and their clothing is brightly coloured. The “slaves” were all Dinka who had been kidnapped during the years of the civil war between North and South Sudan. John Eibner from Christian Solidarity International, an aid organization that is involved in so-called “slavery redemption” in these parts, explained that Nomadic Arab tribes from Darfur would cross the river that separates Darfur from Bar-el-Ghazal, to raid the villages, kill the men, and kidnap the women and children. According to Eibner there was no historical precedence for this, although other academics and experts on Sudan strongly disagree. Slavery does have a long history in Sudan. But according to Eibner the nomadic Arab tribes and the Dinka had co-existed and traded peacefully up until the civil war began. And so he believed that the Arab tribes were told to attack the Dinka and kidnap the women and children by the Government of Sudan (GoS), much as the Janjaweed in Darfur are spurred-on by the GoS. Apparently these raids have stopped since the end of the North-South civil war. *

After walking through the moonlit savannah for about 45 minutes we found the “slaves” sitting under a tree. They had made a fire and were skinning a goat that they had been given as a gift for food. They were awfully hungry and tired. They had walked for seven days, they said. They were all boys and men – as young as 8, and as old as 40. Some had been badly beaten. One boy, 13 years old, was crippled from all the beating (though I wondered if he might not have had polio as well), another boy had been speared in the foot and the wound had turned gangrenous. A bunch of the kids had the mumps, and awful coughs, and still, when I turned the LCD screen on my camera around so they could see what this strange thing that I had been pointing at them all day and night was all about they began to laugh – they laughed at themselves and at one-another, and then they laughed at me, pointing to my headphones and saying how silly they looked, and thanking me for “taking their pictures”. The village women laughed at me too sometimes when I would wrap the camera under my shirt to protect it from the sun and the dust. They told me it was time to find a man and have children so that I would stop cradling this machine in my arms.

There was a boy, Deng, 8 years old, who had lost his right arm, below the elbow, and three fingers on his left hand, in a bomb blast during the civil war. When we were introduced he reached out his right arm to shake “hands” with me – completely naturally, without any self-consciousness about the fact that he had no hand. He then sat down at the trunk of another great mulberry tree and sang songs for me, waving his arms, clapping with his remaining hand against his knee, wiggling his remaining fingers, snapping them together in rhythm. Deng was an orphan, his entire family had been killed in an air raid during the war.

There are so many stories to tell: of the Arab cattle herder on his camel who got the camel to “perform” for the camera; of old men performing traditional hunting ritual songs and dances; of the Arab truck driver who drove us – a group of kawajas, “whities”, all of whom, except for me of course, consider themselves modern-day abolitionists, Evangelical Christians – deep into the bush to “free the slaves”. The driver was dressed in a pink galabia, wearing a cross, smoking dope, and drinking late into the night – his truck was called the “Sure Deal”.

On the second “slave redemption day” we found the “slaves” sitting under a tree, cracking open peanut shells and munching away at break-neck speed as Pastor Heidi of Denver, Colorado, preached to them through a translator. Pastor Heidi instructed the “slaves” that they no longer had to say “Allah O Akbar”, as they had reportedly been forced to do by their Muslim slave-masters, and that from now-on they were to say “Hallelujah” instead — the “slaves” totally ignored the good Pastor and just kept snapping open the peanut shells.

* CSI has been criticized by other NGOs and at the UN for perpetuating the slave trade in Sudan through its slavery-redemption work. CSI is one of numerous American Christian organizations that operate in South Sudan. Indeed, there are strong ties between the Government of South Sudan and evangelical groups from the West, especially from the U.S.