It was the year my brother’s son was abducted. It was the year my uncle’s son died of malaria and it was the year we lost many of our cattle to a debilitating malady. It was a difficult year we grieve in anger and a year we blamed God.
Just beyond the horizon in our community, everything that happens to us is the gods’ plan. Our gods are our ancestors, totems, and monuments. If they get annoyed they allow famine and poverty to sit over our land. They allow diseases or let people to die in the war or go missing. For a misdemeanor, they let us bump into stones so our toes bleed, make us lost in a neighborhood, or cut our finger with a knife. Any little incident that causes pain is by their orders.
These gods manifested in some of us, and my grandmother, my mother, and my little sister were their custodians. When a child got sick, my grandmother had to be consulted. She would smoke a pipe with tobacco lighted on one end until she was possessed and started speaking in mumbles. My mother trained her ears to get the message. We the children would be sent outside and the house closed behind us. We eavesdropped but couldn’t catch any meaningful words.
Sometimes, my grandmother informed my mother that the gods were angry and they needed to be appeased. For their love of meat, the gods would order the fattest animal from our cattle. If they had mercy, a goat or a sheep, but if it had been too long since they’d been consulted or given anything, maybe a year or a few seasons, they would ask for a bull or cow.
When my mother or my elder sister were possessed, they made too much noise, like the sound of a donkey being left in an undisclosed location. Neither would speak any word but flopped clumsily around the compound as if their legs were too heavy to lift a step. When they screamed, the whole community came to form a crowd of spectacle that swayed all over our premises. My father always got annoyed by that commotion and he would grab his belt or a stick made from the thick, dried skin of a dead hippo and run after one of them and the gods would disappear.
When my father was not around, my mom and her daughter made noise all day long until one of us ran to get father. If his whereabouts were not known, we closed our ears with the palm of our hands till the possessed were tired of crying. Anyone who got out of gods’ grip looked like a deflated balloon with its air sucked out, drooped, and loose.
Unlike my grandmother who had the language to convey the message from the supernatural world, my mother and sister were sent many times to give us messages, but their unintelligible languages were misconceived as noise. Our family realized later that the gods were foretelling a tragic event that would befall one of our family members. The gods beat the message into my mother and sister again and again, but they were chased away. They kept coming back but were ignored.
In November 2010, Majuai was abducted; kidnapped from a land of his own by a total stranger, many strangers, perhaps, who live in a distant land and leave to travel far to get hold of other people’s children as if they can’t birth and raise their own.
Majuai and his cousins went for errands in the surrounding bushes. It was their business as usual to go about collecting gum from acacia trees and looking for unripe tamarind fruits. The bush was thick but they didn’t fear, it was the land they knew. They knew the bush by the familiar look of people, of trees, the smell of dry soil, and the taste of fruits and wild vegetables they collected.
The month before, Majuai’s maternal uncle had come to ask for him so that he could stay with his grandmother and be the eye for the cousins. I protested this decision. I don’t want him to go, I am his father, I told them. I opposed the move with an authoritative voice because a child’s protestations in the face of an adult are like a smothering fire that gives way to impotent ash, so soft and harmless.
I pleaded not to let Majuai go. I tried convincing my father and my mother, his grandparents. I talked to my brother and my sister-in-law, his parents. But they conspired against my plea, against my right to deny my child’s leaving me. They needed him to go and look after the young kids. They needed him to be a child to his grandmother, who lost all her children to adulthood.
I was thirteen in the winter when Majuai was born. I was called a father. Culturally, a child that is born by your brother or sister is yours and I was a father in my teens. A child fathering or mothering a child is not unusual. We had many children who were mothers or fathers in their teens and I was happy to be a father for I would soon be a real father. The honor of being referred to as a father or a mother of an elder brother’s or elder sisters’ children instills responsibility for one’s upcoming children.
In character, I was different from Majuai. I was a child full of mischief and drama. There were countless stories told of me and many names dumped on me because of my behavior and actions. The year I was crawling, I wrecked anything within my reach. I uncovered anything covered within our house and unearthed anything buried to examine all that looked new to me. They named me Mamuot, the one who dug out the unknown. At the time I was tottering, I staggered to any unattended boiling pot, lifted up the lid and threw in a stone, scooped sand into it, or simply tossed in a piece of cloth if my temperament was cool. They named me Wurnyang, recalling the time of turmoil I was born in as if I were extending the chaotic moment to live longer.
I was born on a battlefield during one of the countless clan wars. My clan’s women and children were meandering in the forest and farms and then dodging bullets in their search for a safe place they could hide. A brave midwife sat my mother down and helped deliver me. I was separated from my placenta with a cut of a sorghum stalk blade. I was told my skin was the color of a golden apple and my hair looked like a tassel of unready maize cob.
Majuai was none of this. He gleamed dark, quiet and generous, and good. I looked after him like a son and a little brother. Had I not graduated from my old school of wrongdoings, Majuai would then be all me and his uncle would have found it hard to go away with him like a sack of maize only to be donated to the hungry people who didn’t deserve him.
Majuai was taken and carried away by his uncle who refused to obey the demand of his father. He was taken close to the lion’s den, only to be easily abducted and never to be seen again. The Murle are notorious human traffickers and cattle raiders. They are a small community situated on a large chunk of land in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. They inhabited what was then Pibor County, the current Greater Pibor. While they are on a chessboard of cattle raids with the neighboring sections of Nuer, Dinka, and Anyuak, the Murle combine cattle raiding with human abduction as if to fill that vastness of arable land in the Southeast of the country.
Ayod District, Majuai’s birthplace, is impenetrable due to its opaque bushes, as thick as a tuft of hair. However, these bushes and available water in streams, canals, and dams all year round are also a huge disadvantage for the community after the bandits learn to navigate them. Abductors and cattle raiders might stick around for many months without any trace till they disappeared with children or cattle.
When we were little children, the stories of Murle warriors stuck in our minds. We were told that Murle men in hideouts can survive on eating soil until they get what they were looking for and they can stand on their heads while leaning their legs against the trees and become a perfect shadow.
Murles don’t take people to make them slaves. They abduct them to increase their population and train children as warriors who will later raid the place they know so well and then return to Murle land.
There was a story told of a child, one of those children from the Gawaar community trained to be safe in the bush. He mastered all the tricksters of Murle warriors. This child was caught in a deep bush herding cattle. Suddenly, he saw himself surrounded by people hunching toward him. He turned the stick he was holding into a guide for a blind person, wielding it as if he were struggling to find his way. He rolled his eyes up and turned them white like the snow of daybreak.
The gunmen seized him but when they found he looked so strange, they discussed whether he was really blind and whether they would take or leave him. One examined his eyes and pulled them down but in a split second, he rolled them up again. In a hurry, they agreed to take him and chase a few cows.
As they ran, they didn’t bother blindfolding the blind child and so he learned and mastered the path and their village on the way. The child disappeared the day after they arrived on Murle land.
Sometimes I wonder if Majuai’s abduction was anything like that. When he disappeared 8 years after the winter he was born, my sister brought me the indescribable news. I had been studying in the district’s capital, and I was dumbfounded, unable to speak while tears cascaded down my cheeks. I lost my son, I lost the boy I raised. It was because of him that I was called a father.
In our culture, a man is not expected to cry. This is an insult to the six marks which lay parallel across his forehead. That day, I cried, I cried like I had nothing on my forehead, I cried like I was as young as I was the day before I was initiated into manhood. I learned that grief overwhelms one and makes one forget everything for a moment. I was like a device that froze, rebooted itself, and came to life again.
Majuai was there when I was about to be initiated into manhood. We were three boys looking for a gaar, the one who cuts six parallel marks on the forehead with a sharp blade. When we found him, he ordered us to excavate clay soil and mold it to a circular shape till it becomes soft. We did as he guided us.
Early in the morning at the cockcrow, we immersed ourselves in cold winter weather with our pillows of hardened soil in our hands. The middleman who is considered the best craftsman in tribal sacrifice in our neighborhood emerged. He was tall and wore a stoic face. His solemn face made us think that his heart was not shaken by a spill or a stain of blood in his hands.
I was the first to lie down. It had to start with me since the other two were my cousins which made me the father. I sat down with my face to the sky and my head and legs pointing straight to the north and south, respectively. It was as though I was the compass that spins the globe through its horizontal longitudes. I folded my hands and crossed them tightly over my chest.
The man started with the first line. He dived the blade into the center of my forehead and cut the flesh open, moving his hand toward the right side of my ear. The first operation made me writhe. Writhing during the initiation is a sign of cowardice and it can lead the way to cry. Majuai encouraged me that I was his father and I couldn’t cry. His words fortified me and I faced my way to being a man with resolution. It was not long before the event was over that one of my cousins let out a loud yell, and from that point, he ceased to be a man. We blamed the gods for an egregious betrayal that prevented a smooth transition from boyhood to manhood. There is no doubt that it was the same god that allowed Majuai to be seized in the bush by those Murle bandits so desperate to fill a vast land.
22 February, 2023