Gorwai, the Memories of Childhood

By Stephen Pech Gai

The village of Gorwai is made from sprawling beehive grass thatched houses and huts, and filled with undulating thorn bushes and shrubs. The children there are born from the unborn into the world of the living, and grow up to become ancestors at old age, if they made it that far. The community’s livelihoods are fish, livestock, and farming crops that sprung across the Great River Nile.

Gatluoy was among other kids brought up in Gorwai with strict customs and traditions. He was barely ten when he was told to look after goats, and then he was transferred to tend to the calves. Every child born in that very village was free to walk and play everywhere they wanted, as long as they stayed within the neighborhood. The children swam in the clear blue water of the many ponds and pools across the village, they roasted maize and they were free to name themselves after any goat or a calf or a bull of their choice.

While life and natural death had always been the two faces of the ancestral homeland of Gorwai, the post-colonial period saw the introduction of guns as a new, unwelcome facet of the community’s existence. Cattle herders now had to share the same bushes as hunters and killers. Fishermen and war veterans meandered the Wetland’s reeds looking for fish and conscript to fight wars. Children were born and grew up, and initiated themselves into childhood by constructing play guns of tree branches and mud. They routinely waged wars with other children in the neighborhood. At their battlefields, they welded and pointed their artificial guns at their adversaries and imitated gunfire with their mouths. Sometimes, when their battles intensified, the groups of children laid down their arms and started throwing stones at each other, making the battle real and dangerous, instead of just a play-fight.

Every child was aware of the disaster’s guns had brought upon the community. The stories of men both old and young who were prey to bullets in their early life were interwoven in songs, folklores, and riddles that were passed on from generation to generation. The looting and pillages were conducted by those with guns at the expense of the powerless. Their fathers were at one point rounded up at night, chained, and driven to fight wars. If they managed to break away to return to their families, they were labeled deserters who had abandoned their duties, and their cattle or crops were taken as a fine.

Gatluoy recalled an event that shook him deeply as a three-year kid, one that had a profound effect on the rest of his life. An elderly mother was wandering back and forth on the road facing their home, her hands laying heavily on her head. She was crying at the death of her only child, who had played with a Russian Kalashnikov (AK-47) that hung at a pole in the back of a cattle hut with two other children. The children knew what a rifle looked like, and they were sure it sounded like thunder rumbling. They had witnessed adult young men shooting down birds flying high in the sky, birds sitting on tree branches, or birds drawing water in their flocks many times before, and they must have known that the rifle in the back of the hut could take the life of one of them.

Still, on that fateful hour, the children conspired, and the eldest boy climbed up the pole like a frog to carry the rifle down. He was helped by the other two. They had heard enough rumors of people dying at the barrel of guns but they wanted to see for themselves if a bullet could take a life. The eldest lad held the heavy AK-47, and the rest stood around him, deliberating on whose body the first bullet should be tested. They decided on the youngest boy. He protested, but then told him they’d cover his body with a cow dung skin sheet so that the bullet would simply bounce off, he agreed. Immediately after came the loud sound of a rifle blasting. Relatives came rushing in to see what was amiss, only to stare at a body curled, drenched in blood in front of two juvenile murderers.

The countless stories of great men who never returned, or who returned with limbs missing from fighting wars in distant lands or from defending their homeland all came to the reticent mind of Gatluoy. There is one thing that is reincarnated again and again through education, kept alive in a person’s mind, and that is a childhood memory, no matter how long you spent away from home.

It was ten years ago when Charnyakuech last spoke with his son. Gatluoy dropped out of school in the fifth grade due to the unavailability of support. He was now enrolled by his nephew in a school in Juba, for three years. He was the fifth born in a polygamous family of ten, and the first of them to ever sit in a classroom. It was said that in his youth, his father had sacrificed so much for his family, a weight of responsibility bestowed upon him by cultural expectations after his father died when he was barely a teenager. Gatluoy’s family didn’t only comprise the children and their mothers, but it was so large that anyone who could be traced along the long lines of lineage was a member. All extended relatives were bound by love, care, and generosity.

The messenger who had to deliver the message to Gatluoy’s father walked a foot-day distance from the county headquarters to his ancestral village. He was one of those villagers who came to the town to see how tall the latest erected network structure was, to experience the magic of talking with people who are not in sight by phone. He told him that there was something good he wished to discuss with his father. Gatluoy thought that his father would decline the message, perhaps because the people at home were refining their crops for storage and were about to move the cattle to the cattle Camp.

Charnyakuech received the message and he was so enthusiastic to come to the town. It puzzled him to speak with his son in Juba, a city of thousands, miles away from his village where people measured the distance per hour on foot. Still, he needed to hear of the talk that had filled the village, these stories with so many turns and tunes that revived any conversation even during their strenuous work. A wind of change was seeping through his place of birth – or maybe even through the whole country, a referendum was concluded that had given birth to the eleventh of July 2011 independence. He was born and grown up in that village for the last fifty years. Apart from being a family man, he fought wars; wars during the liberation, but also in defense of the clan. He had a heroic heart, and though he might not be a national hero, he was the hero of the family.

He left at cockcrow, it was dark, and the stars shining in the western skies during winter lit his path. These stars would vanish soon when the sun rose to torch the village. He walked for a long time, and then he climbed onto the cleared wide road along the Jonglei Canal’s mound bank, and then he felt sunshine on his shoulders. Whenever he was thirsty, he climbed down to the canal’s basin and cupped his hands to draw water. As the clouds grew thin, forming a grey layer in the sky as the sun slowed down on his left side, he decided it was time to rest. He spent the night at his maternal uncle’s home, a suburb of a two-hour walk from the town. He arrived midmorning at his nephew’s home in the town.

The call took a long as it was traveling a far distance. Then a voice answered that trembled his ear in sudden wonder. “Ɛ jin Gatluoy, gadä,” his voice resonated as he talked to his son. “Ca̱a̱rnya-kuƐc, ɣɔkca̱a̱r,” said Guotluoy in excitement, addressing his father with the color of his bull. Per the custom, the black bull he was named in honor came with his elder sister-Nyakuich’s dowry. People called Gatluoy different names for praise, they call him Wurnyang and Mayik but only one name suits him. He called you Jokdeel.

Gatluoy named himself after a white black-stripe-head he-goat at his adolescent age. It was for the love of this goat that he mastered all the bleating sounds of all the goats at their hut, that he identified all the braided ropes they use to tether goats. His childhood view was sharpened by these goats. One day, the cows were grazing on grasses instead of pulling leaves. He marveled at this sight for a while, feeling mystified, and then he rushed home to tell the adults. They laughed and called him a fool.

After the great moments of hurling praises passed, Gatluoy told his father he needed a computer, a laptop in fact, but to convince his father, he first had to explain what it was and why it was important. His father listened to his half-baked knowledge, information about a world passing him faster every day. Gatluoy said that a computer works like a phone, it has a broad and rectangular face, smaller than his goat skin. His dad nodded in understanding when the goat skin was mentioned. He always brought his goatskin with him, rolling it up whenever he needed to sit on the floor, and folding it whenever he was about to leave. One could read books using a computer, and the computer could also be one’s teacher, Gatluoy continued.

After he paused, Charnyakuech asked if his son was finished talking. Gatluoy said yes. It was now his father’s turn. Before he replied, Gatluoy already imagined the expression on his face. His father was inhaling heavily, drawing his eyelash up, and his face displayed some creases that distorted the horizontal tribal scarification that ran at close intervals on the top of his right ear and ran in bold lines across his face to the point of the other ear. He cleared his throat and let out a dry yawn. “Gatluoy, are you hearing me?” He answered yes, and he switched from calling him by his praise name because this is a serious matter. Taking a cow from his hut is like carrying an item of furniture out of someone’s house in the city, that place will remain empty till it is occupied.

His words came out thick and fast. Gatluoy knew his father and his father knew Gatluoy too. His father doesn’t agree to anything before contemplating it for a long time, and Galuoy doesn’t relent in any quest and that keeps the father and the son in counter-discussion till one of them won. His father told him that the cows were not there. Gatluoy was listening quietly. His father asked him if he heard that the harvest had failed because the rain had hung itself above the clouds. He told him that those few who were there had to sustain the people who could look after them. He reminded him how educated people come home with knowledge in their heads but without wives, only to married with people from the communities of their roots. He didn’t need Gatluoy to come home one day only to stare at an empty hut.

Gatluoy had nothing to contribute to this particular discussion but said that he understood his position. His father agreed to talk again in spring when they could together bring the cattle home. The call ended to no avail for Gatluoy. His request was trashed in a world where a new world doesn’t perfectly fit in. He judged his father’s arguments. He had so many reasons to say no. Back when his father was young, computers were rare things of prestige and intellect. One saw it once in a while at our county commissioner’s office, and they were occasionally possessed by erudite men and women who returned home from outside the country, men who took the first step to jump over a slaughtered cow laid flat during their homecoming celebrations.

Before Gatluoy reached out to his father, he convened a meeting with his nephew. His nephew said that his request was similar to the one of a young man who asked to buy a gun when he was about to be initiated into adulthood. Following tradition, if his father was alive, he’d get a cow from his father’s home to buy a gun. His nephew didn’t tell him that he had no money. A laptop was about one thousand South Sudanese pounds, which is equivalent to an exorbitant price of 250 United States dollars. That was way before the current dilapidated hyperinflation depreciated the South Sudanese pounds into a state of nothingness. He didn’t content with his nephew’s logic in comparing a laptop with a gun, but it brought up memories from childhood.

Gatluoy faltered on the ambition of buying a laptop, but he kept longing for one. That was 2013, and a bomb was ticking. No later than four months, the civil war broke out in South Sudan. Artilleries both heavy and light roared through the streets of Juba, and the whole country was engulfed in war within a week. Thousands of lives were lost. Gatluoy and his nephew’s family lost everything. They fled to UNMISS Camp. Everything at their home was looted and their home was occupied. From that point, He had never seen his ancestral home for twelve years.

21 January, 2023