if one is lucky, he might witness the extraordinary, maybe even the magical. if he sees it just once, he will spend the rest of his life looking for it. and the rest of his life finding it.
today, the sky above was blue. over the meniscus of an ocean turned silty gray by swollen rivers, the rainy season hunched on the horizon, waiting to return. for now, the sun was high and hot, and it burned through bands of thin white clouds. I lied there watching them, trying to determine whether the wind would hold the darker ones at sea, or shuffle them in. I couldn’t determine which direction the wind was moving them. north… no, south. wait. north. the narrow strands of cloud were being blown back, and forth, and back, and forth, stuttering, a glitch, a loop in time. they stayed there, tossed around from side to side, for a minute or more. dizzying. most days have been filled with rain, covered with a gray blanket. today was different, full of light from the start. there are very few tourists in kenya at this time of year, and as such, few opportunities for recreation or conversation. cloudwatching is as good as it gets.
as i was driving to meet my plane last week, i watched the landscape smooth by. between the scrubs of trees were mazes of paths. roads do not matter to the people here. noone has cars. they do not stretch ahead in the distance, not navigable from beginning to end; they are short interruptions in a narrow footpath. when you flew above sudan, the thick strips of gravel were outnumbered by thousands of trails that angled in all directions.
like much of africa, at least the parts of africa that are not yet europe or america, the life around abyei is not linear. it is curved. it moves in ellipses and arcs. the huts are round. the cattle paths meander back and forth. there are no straight sidewalks flanked with edges when one approaches a home, only a gently angled padded approach. in canada we can trace our lives with a ruler. our doors, our stairs, our house, our property, the shortest path to work, to the movie theatre. whenever i arrive home after months away like this, my first thoughts are always, "wow. everything is so square."
as i have mentioned before, many of the paths in the part of sudan where i work are made by the dinka. they are one of the largest tribes in they south, and make up a majority of the patients that i see in the hospital. easily recognizable, tall and thin with high cheekbones and almond eyes, they are nilotic cousins of the more famous masai from kenya, among the most famous of the dinkas is manute bol who, at seven foot seven, was the tallest player in NBA history. anthropologists wonder at how they preserve their unique height. someone once told me that the dinkas in southern sudan changed weight/height charts for the entire world.
historically, the dinka were pastoralists. they spent their time herding cattle from one grazing area to the other, looking at the clouds and following the seasons. if the unit of human understanding is the story, the story at least in this part of the world includes the cow. they are of the highest worth. they are used to pay a woman's family for permission to marry. their number is a measure of social status, of power and wealth. they are tended and loved. often, a man will favour a particular cow, befriend it, write poetry to it. on the full moon, some tribes tie colorful bands to the bulls horns, and sing and dance until morning. their songs are about their cattle, so too their dance.
in abyei, there is one large bull that is free to roam about town. his horns are incredibly large, difficult to believe. they are as disproportionate to his frame, mantis antennaes, and very heavy. unable to find equilibrium, his head bobs from side to side.
only after their natural death are cattle eaten, their hide used. while they are alive, only their milk is taken. at adolescence, a dinka boy is relieved of his childhood duties, of which milking the cows is an important one. with an initiation rite, he is welcomed into the world of men, of warriors and with this arrival, the permission to accumulate cattle of his own, and to take a wife.
many of the men who i work with bear the marks of this initiation. on their forehead are deep scars, tracing the brows and meeting in the middle. they are intended to resemble horns. at thirteen or so, after an adrenalin filled night of dancing and singing and homage to ancestors, an elder takes a sharp knife and cuts deep into the forehead of the initiate. he neither cries nor flinches; a jitter in a smooth scar would be a permanent sign of his cowardice. the blood is then wiped away, and his forehead bound. the cuts are deep. i have read that sometimes when a skull is discovered one can tell the tribe it belonged to because of the marks left in the bone.
the man now goes about his business of looking for a wife, perhaps the first of many. someone told me that abyei's chief prior to this current one, had dozens. he was very wealthy man, with many cows.
i have not found out why some of the people i see have different patterns of scars. intricate serious of lines, dots, circles stretching from their face, down their arms, over their chests. they are remarkable, beautiful and fierce. occasionally, i will see women with such intricate scars, but haven't been able to glean their significance. i will do more research.
there are other unique, distinguishing features particular to some of my patients, as well as some of my colleagues. some, for instance, have their four front teeth removed. i have seen it both done on the top, and the bottom. others have their teeth pulled to right angles from their jaw. completely perpendicular to their face, they jut beneath their lip. it is thought that it makes women, in particular, look beautiful and fierce.
i remember asking my translator in cambodia why he kept the nail on his fifth finger so long. he shrugged. "i think it looks good", he said.
an msf colleague, after years in southern sudan, was allowed to witness an initiation ritual, a terrific honour. she described the rending of the teeth, the dancing and ululating that followed. afterwards, they passed around a gourd that contained fresh milk and warm blood. she politely refused.
it is an unfortunate thing that i will not be in abyei long enough, and am unable to mix with its population well enough, to get more than glimpses into the complex patterns of human history and beliefs that surround me. already, one can see that ties to the past are loosening. in abyei, 50 cent shirts are more common than traditional garb. one of the people i worked with asked how much it would cost to have his teeth reinserted. such traditions are relics, part of the past, an old sudan that has no place in a global future. in a proposed version of a new constitution, i read a statue forbidding ritualistic scarification.
as i often do, i wonder what we lose as we drop another piece of human pageantry, another extraordinary piece of our history. perhaps nothing. and it makes good sense to me as a canadian, good rational sense, to not give a fourteen year old boy scars on his face he might be ashamed of fifteen years later. however, i suspect the system that encourages uniformity, that engenders such shame, that puts as arbiter a sensibility that sees differences as deviances, is more to blame than his parents. north americans do not need to look far to see how easy forced integration, borders, and culture is for a native, nomadic population.
however for now, and for the foreseeable future, no matter how many eminem and WWE shirts parade abyei, cows still rule. the dinka are slowly recovering from the turmoil of africa’s largest war, and they are moving with their growing herds to find green grass and to celebrate marriages. change may be inevitable, but here at least, it will be slow.
one last thing in an already too long post (i blame a gray, long day): for those who want to know more about southern sudan, dave eggers has written a novel called "what is the what". it is well worth reading, but be careful. it spares no detail.
[ More Info : James refers to the book "What is the What : the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng" - a fictionalised memoir of a young man fighting for survival as a refugee, during Sudan's civil war in the 80s and 90s prior to the current Darfur region conflict. Click here for a review at the NewYorkTimes and reader/buyer comments from Amazon.com ]