Stars and the guards

31 May 2011 Comments

Who would have thought I’d be sitting around under the starry dome of South Sudan, learning the names and stories of the stars from Nuer Warriors in the quiet of the night? A more gentle and hapless bunch of guys you couldn’t invent, but in the ways of spear-fighting, bushlore, and cattle-defence, the MSF guards command the respect of all comers, be they Nuer and Dinka, or Murle.

Gatuak Thiey, Mut Rot, and Isaac (the fattest man in the village) in self-styled Colonial Pose

Obviously their names for stars, and the shapes cast in the night sky by the old Nuer imagination are different. The word for the pliades is ‘QuelYuk’ – ‘Thin Stars’. From what I can make out, the ‘wateriness’ of their appearance is associated with the rain that is missing when they are in the sky, and so when the Pliades Constellation drops over the horizon, is the time for the rainy season to come. Wanbel, at the other side of the sky, becomes more dominant when the rains will come, and is associated with the Sorghum growing season.

A cowboy sets off for cattle camp with his bay and his herd

For Orion, these cowboys only see the belt and the sword. The story is one of travel across the night sky of a lone cowboy, followed by his cow (the middle star on the belt), and guarded by his faithful dog behind him (the last star). The sword, outlying, is the Hyena, which is trying to pick-off the cow, but is prevented by the dog’s straight persistence. Simple, but effective.

Pensive Cowboy at Lankien Auction

Pensive Cowboy at the Cattle Auction

The prettiest Constellation name is for Venus. I forget the Nuer name now, but, she being the morning star, towards which the moon comes across the sky (the world is split by the milky way), is called something-like ‘…who waits patiently for the moon to come home’.

Last night, I had the guards in stitches as they taught me what I found out were the pejorative terms for ‘Hunchback’ and ‘One-eye’. I religiously repeated the expressions, until they told me I’d better not use them on people unless I wanted to get in quite a lot of trouble. Not very appropriate for an MSF worker!

This evening saw all the guards rallying to control the crowds in the compound. Arrival of a gunshot wound, combined with ‘Water Collection Time’ for staff wives, and ‘visiting time’ for IPD (in-patient department) all happened at once, and there was near mayhem.

A Lankien ambulance brings a wounded man in on a bush-stretcher

Luckily the guards were changing-over, so we had at least seven available. We needed every one of them, although I had to disarm one of them who had, it seemed, brought a spear to work. Gunshot wounds always involve an entourage, which has to be managed. The wound was from a fight with the Murle tribe. These fights are always over cattle, and the Murle are not disarmed -unlike your average Nuer, who only has a spear. I have never seen these Murle people, who still live so much in the old nomadic way, and with whom the Nuer seem to have a lifelong feud. Children are abducted by both sides, as well as lifestock, to swell tribal numbers, and when asked whether a strange-looking man might be a Murle, I was laughed-at. ‘You will know when you see a Murle’, came the reply. They rarely wear more than a loincloth, and are, like Nuer, tall and foreboding. As MSF, we treat everybody equally, so Murle have no quarrel with us. Luckily.