Mud, sweat and teeth

On one particularly muddy day I was helping some of the Water and Sanitation team make a Tukul...

I feel strongly that the best way to work or earn respect for your work is to get down and do the nitty-gritty yourself. These are the fun bits. The days I come back from work covered in mud and oil are far more satisfying than the days I return with sore fingers from typing.

On one particularly muddy day I was helping some of the Water and Sanitation team make a Tukul. A Tukul is a local hut made out of mud and straw and occasionally, if it’s available, chicken wire. Rather morbidly, we were making this Tukul into a mortuary, but these jobs do need to be done.

On this particular day of mudding, I was completing the task with two Nuer women. South Sudan comprises a complex mix of different ethnic groups. The two predominant groups are the Dinka and the Nuer. Whilst MSF has several hospitals all over South Sudan, the Lankien hospital I work in is based in an area with a large number of people with Nuer origins.

The women who were mudding were very graceful about it all. A dash of mud here, a bit of straw there. In contrast, I was seriously out of my depth and ended up with a significant portion of my assigned mud nestling in my eyebrows. Whilst trying to pluck the mud from my face, I was speaking to one of the women about the differences in our lifestyles.

She said she once had to walk five days to get to another town in South Sudan in order to escape war and to protect her family. I said I once ran 3km on the treadmill but had to sit down afterwards and then have a nap. She laughed and asked what a treadmill was. When explaining, I realised the concept of a treadmill must be ridiculous to a woman who will never have electricity in her home and whose only ever form of transport has been her own feet.

Anyway, we were getting on well, sharing our leg-based achievements, when she said to me.

‘Sister, I like you, we are friends.’

I think she felt a bit sorry for me and wanted me to know my poor performance on the treadmill would not jeopardise our new-found friendship. 

I thought we were friends too, so I nodded enthusiastically. Having concurred that we were getting on, she then said casually:

‘I like you too because your father is a Nuer man.’

Now, at this juncture I felt a bit confused. We went back to building the Tukul - her elegantly mudding the walls, me, sporting a helmet made from solidified mud. I pondered. I wonder what she means. I know sister is a term of affection here, like friend, but it doesn’t literally mean we share a common parent. Maybe having a Nuer father is a term of endearment too? I probed further.

‘So how do you know my father is a Nuer man?’ I asked.

She said, exasperated:

‘Of course your father is a Nuer man, your teeth are Nuer. No English people have teeth like this.’

I must explain. I have some pretty big gaps between my teeth. It was once my party trick to put a pound coin between my two front teeth until, one day, the coin got stuck and my siblings convinced me the only way to free the coin was to fill my mouth with soap. In desperation, I agreed to do it. I haven’t performed the trick since.

These teeth, I guess, are quite rare among Brits, and do seem to be more common in African countries. I felt elated. My teeth had always caused me to be an outsider, but now I was finally accepted – I was part of something – I was making friends – because of the teeth!

I laughed and continued the conversation.

‘Well, I’ll check with my mother, but I’m pretty certain my father isn’t a Nuer man.’ To my knowledge my father is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man with Irish roots and a tendency to freckle when exposed to too much sun. I know he is my father because I did in fact inherit his teeth. Sharing such eccentric teeth and a predisposition to freckle under a street-lamp, there is no doubt that we are related.

‘Yes yes, he is a Nuer man,’ she said knowingly.

‘Hmm I said, well I don’t think he is, but he does have quite a few gaps in his teeth too.’

She looked disgruntled. She seemed pretty convinced about my Nuer roots. We carried on making the Tukul. I had sort of accidentally mudded myself into the walls so was really not contributing much to the work by now, but it was clear we both felt sad at the loss of this potential genetic connection. I pulled off my mud-helmet, freed a leg that I had unwittingly encased in a mud-cast and said hopefully:

‘Well my father was adopted, and I’m not sure who his biological parents are, so, in theory, there is a small possibility that his father was a Nuer man,’ I mused.

‘Ah ha!’ She flicked a layer of mud that, of course, landed in my eyebrows.

‘It must be that! I told you we were sisters!”

We both beamed triumphantly at having solved the mystery of my gap-filled teeth.