Local food

I've learnt some new things. Firstly, I was invited to a “traditional Nuer lunch” by a health education worker in Pul-deng. As we were really busy and only half way through the patients I told them we would have to be quick as the patients were waiting. Everyone was sitting cross legged on the floor of a tukul waiting for me, a large pot of maize porridge cooked in goat butter sat in the centre of the room and a chair carved from a single piece of wood was set to the side for the guest of honour! A large scooped silver spoon was handed to me and I was told to start.

Each handpicked pod of maize had been dried on a mat in the sun for a week and then crushed in a huge mortar and pestle with an eight-foot-long pole. It was then stewed with water from the stagnant pond until soft and then handmade butter, churned from goat milk, was added. To be honest it tasted like clag glue mixed with dirty oil and I had quite a challenge to actually swallow without gagging, and keep a surprised 'mmmmm' expression on my face.

I was being watched with baited breath for my reaction of (feigned) pleasure, before the others ate from the pot, laughing, smiling and chatting happily. I made my spoonful last the equivalent of 10 of theirs and then tried the next dish, mashed pumpkin and the same crushed maize stew. It was much better as I could taste the pumpkin which helped to push the oily residue down. While asking about my son and family, they also shared some of their intimacies, such as how many wives and how many concubines they each had, which ones they liked and why!

Local food © Kate Chapman

"Mmmm, well I really better get back to the patients," I voiced

"But wait there’s more, you haven’t had the milk yet!"

With that a litre of very chunky curdled milk was poured straight out of the gourd and into the remainders of the first dish, given a quick stir and then they all waited again for me to sample their gift!. Now it’s certainly not as hot as it was when I got here but it’s still in the high 30s. In a tukul, literally in a jungle of vines and palms, surrounded by stifling, mosquito-infested swamps it was perhaps in the mid-40s and humid as hell, not to mention the four big, burley men all well over 6 foot, sitting in a 3m x 3m tukul, half filled with plastic bags of belongings. I braced myself, smiled, looked each of them the eyes and then plunged in with my 'special' silver spoon the size of a small shovel, with another big smile at my special honor. Before it reached my lips I could smell it, like unwashed person or clothes that have been lived in, sweated in, slept, peed and pooped in, for at least two weeks!

I exhaled as I put it in my mouth so as not to smell it, took a mouthful off my heaped spoon and swallowed. They were beaming:

“Good ha? Ha? you like Ha? special, traditional Nuer food!”

“Wow it’s great, thank you so much!"

I was thinking that I’d get sick all the way home, that I might not even get through the consults, but they were so proud and happy that I was sharing with them. So they went on to explain that they would take the remainder out for the rest of the team, who could never enter a Nuer tukul as they were “habbasha”, which is a local word to describe Ethiopian highlanders from Addis Ababa. That if “one of them” ever came in their tukul, a cow from the owners heard would die, which is sacrilege.

“Really?” I asked,

“Yes, yes it is certain.”

This is very fascinating and sad too as I really are noticing the gap between cultures, between clans and sub-clans. Wars are fought and people killed over what I think are trifles. You can take another man’s wife or his daughter and have a retribution/compensation set by a leopard skin priest, without much shame or trouble, but say or do anything against a man’s cows and you may be killed for it!

Another interesting thing is that you cannot be killed in your tukul. That is the rules, the law! If men are chasing you with a gun and you get in your tukul they can’t shoot you until you come out. Even the army can’t go in and get you, despite it being made of mud and cow poop, and with one swift kick you could make a big hole. But that’s the rules across all the clans!

Another thing I learned was that Nyaliep, a common girl’s name, means 'father has gone to Sudan and the child was born before he returned'

"Really? You’re kidding? All that is in Nyaliep? even going to Sudan, not just going away?" "No it means 'father has gone to Sudan and child was born before he returned'"