Story Publication logo June 9, 2007

Jen Goes Dinka


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Gabriel Deng, Koor Garang and Garang Mayuol, Southern Sudanese "Lost Boys" in the U.S., were forced...

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Multiple Authors

David Morse, for the Pulitzer Center

Last Thursday I watched the beginning of it: Jen's immersion into Dinka.

We had just finished another sweltering day in classrooms, this time meeting with teachers at Akon school, which goes to Second Form, roughly equivalent to eighth grade. This meeting was partly outreach: Gabriel and Diyani were promoting the use of lesson plans, with specific objectives and measurable outcomes, since much of the teaching we see here is chaotic. And the half dozen teachers, most of whom had only elementary school education themselves, told us of their frustrations, which were many.

The physical setting has to be described. The rooms are dark except for the glare from glassless windows. Dingy concrete, doors off hinges. Goats, like the children, come and go. The only recognizably schoolish accoutrement is a painted blackboard in front, and in the upper grades some desks. The lower grades have no desks. The children sit in the dirt, clutching their notebooks and some UNICEF-provided materials. By the time they reach the upper grades, we notice it is all boys. The girls have disappeared; they are tending babies or working in the fields.

We listened to their complaints, chief of which is that they are paid next to nothing, something like $100-125 per month, and that pittance is often late. Gabriel is incensed at the situation that prevails here in South Sudan. In this state, Warrap, teachers like the nurses often must make the trek to the capital, Kwanjok, in order to receive their salaries - which takes several days. This is a step backwards from British colonial days; a step backwards even from Khartoum's rule before the war. We want to ask the local commissioner why this is happening.

After this meeting, we were sitting out under the gathering-tree next to the school. Jen had ensconced herself on the ground, surrounded by three men whom she plied with questions about Dinka. "I want to be Dinka," she told them, "but I am too short." Jen, with her orange tee shirt, red bandanna on her head, suntan pants and fireplug build, is a lively presence at her tamest. But on this occasion she was electric.

How do I say this in Dinka? How do I say that. I could see that at that moment she was making the plunge, providing herself with the Dinka building-blocks she would need to be proficient in Dinka - even without her Arabic. I took some photographs that beautifully convey the energy being exchanged between Jen and that trio of men.

She left with Garang for his village that afternoon. I was supposed to go with them, but they left without me. I was hard to find, I'm sure. It was market-day and the stalls were teeming, and I was photographing like mad: the faces of old people, beautiful young women with ritually defined patterns of scars on their foreheads; vendors behind stacks of flamingo-pink cakes of soap; pharmaceuticals next to pesticides; contraband cooking oil from the World Food Program labeled "NOT TO BE SOLD" being sold; beautiful older women with incredible dignity who could not spell their own names.

So when Garang arrived back yesterday alone, he said Jen had elected to stay in the village. She would walk back later in the afternoon, he said.

"How will she find her way?" Diyani asked.

"The guys will go with her," Garang said. "She'll be fine. She speaks Dinka."

This morning, still no Jen. But when she comes back I have no doubt she will be speaking Dinka. It wouldn't surprise me if she's taller by two feet.

Just to supply a few loose ends. The time we didn't know whether the three Lost Boys had gotten back or not, Gabriel Bol took refuge along the way. Garang and Koor kept walking through the downpour, in water that was sometimes as high as their knees. It took them three hours. Garang caught cold, but neither seems the worse for wear.

In response to one of my posts about traditional medicine, "Joe" raised questions about the limits to traditional medicine, whether they seemed inherent. As a casual observer without specialized training or background, I don't have a ready answer. But I expect it has to do with germ theory. Traditional medicine here in South Sudan does not seem to include amputation of the sort that might save that young girl from her snakebite. There do not seem to be the interventions for handling that sort of major trauma; nor does there seem to be an awareness of how infection takes place.

We are only scratching this surface, of course. We are, in our various ways and going at our own speed, learning Dinka, experiencing the weight of Dinka culture even in these superficial encounters. I confess I am as weary of shaking hands in the Dinka fashion as I am sick of eating goat. But it is in these personal encounters, where we understand better the meaning of bride wealth, the place of cattle in a society that has no banks, the intricate web of familial relationships, and the collisions that take place between people's ambitions and the realities available to them.


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