Hope Away from Home: Part 2

By Stephen Pech Gai

South Sudan is the land of the longest and mighty Nile. The sun rotates north over this land in the middle of the year and south at end of the year, without moving too far away from the equator. The land of fertile soil with much treasure beneath it. The land of the tall and smooth-skinned people who fought so hard to liberate themselves from the weight of marginalization only to wage another civil war against themselves after their country’s independence. Martha, like many ordinary South Sudanese citizens, has endured years of the consequences of wars.

Martha grew up in Sudan’s civil war. It was her generation that fought and brought the supposed freedom at last to South Sudan. On the day of the South Sudan Independence, thousands of celebrants who had never before felt the pride of being citizens danced to the breaking point. Martha was there at Freedom Square when the flag for her country was hoisted. Her eyes shimmered with tears of joy. The beautiful flag had six stripes of symbolic meaning: black represented the people of South Sudan; red, the blood shed in the struggle for freedom; green, the verdant land; blue, the waters of the Nile; the gold star, the South Sudanese people’s unity, hope, and determination; and white, for peace. There were over a hundred hovering lines of flags at Freedom Square. The tallest iron bar flew the South Sudan flag. That is how she felt, after paying for the war with the highest cost: she was rocking the sky high with joy.

After two decades of fighting, freedom was a breath of fresh air. But just two years after she stood at Freedom Square, Martha’s joy turned into a nightmare at their ancestral home along the Nile River. Juba broke into another war. Gunmen attacked their village, looted, burned, and left it in ruin; innocent people were tortured, raped and killed.

Martha and her daughter were forced to abandon the home they knew from generations of their ancestors. When she was about to take her last step off the South Sudanese soil into a country she didn’t know, Martha recalled the words of her president during South Sudan’s Independence Day. “We the people of South Sudan have experienced what it is to be a refugee. We hope that this has been our last war and our people will never again have to cross our border to search for security.”

Martha and her daughter crossed to an uncertain country in confusion. Through the journey of ordeals, mostly trekked during the night hours, they passed days and nights without food, water and sanitation. They moved through different hands of smugglers who demanded money they didn’t have. It took them two weeks to reach Zimbabwe.

After starting life in Zimbabwe, Martha and Nyabel had to live through trauma. It was hard to forget the tragic event that uprooted them from home. Though Martha was faced by a language barrier that made her foreign in the new community, her daughter learned to speak many languages that she never would have spoken at home. Nyabel also amassed quite a number of friends. Nyabel could go to school and participated in community activities: Martha could see that Nyabel felt included.

But the war left an indelible mark in Martha’s mind. It wasn’t a conflict they fled. It was the most ruthless violence: elderly people, children, and women who would never be a threat to any one were murdered in cold blood. It was a war Martha had never witnessed in her four decades of living in war-torn Sudan. During the Sudanese longest war, sporadic shooting, military confrontation and inter-communal clashes were countless, but they had never before hurled them from their ancestral land.

Starting life at a new home, Martha couldn’t brush off the history of war from daily conversations with Nyabel. Despite Nyabel’s resolve to look into the bright side of the future, Martha’s concerns were dominated by the war that had cost her so much.

“Mom, do you know World Refugee Day is celebrated this week? I love this year’s theme, ‘Hope Away from Home,’” said Nyabel.

“What do you mean by World Refugee Day?” Martha asked.

“Mom, World Refugee Day is a day to honor and celebrate the lives and experiences of refugees who have fled war, conflicts and persecution around the world,” Nyabel explained.

“So, you mean there are people who are celebrating what we have gone through?” Martha watched her daughter put down her plastic carrier from the market and find a seat next to her. She chuckled, though Martha could not imagine what was funny.

“Mom, it is not that way.” She smiled at Martha the way she did whenever Martha didn’t understand something. “The celebration means to attract people to show solidarity and support for refugees, as well as raise awareness about the challenges they face. The solidarity and awareness may open up opportunities that can be offered to us so we build a new life after we have found safety and hope.”

Nyabel was a quick learner and an adaptable young woman. Her comprehensive explanation of too many things that her mother was not aware of inspired Martha. Nyabel had learned and appreciated the importance of commemorating other International days like the Day of the Girl Child, Women’s Day, and Mother’s Day. During Mother’s Day, just a month earlier, Nyabel bought a special scarf for her mother as a gift. When she presented it to her mother, she said that the world needed more people like her. People who sacrifice and protect their children so that they can live a better life. The present made Martha feel like an anointed hero. She had fought a good fight to raise her daughter to be a disciplined and smart woman. She had smiled gently at the gift and thanked her daughter. She remembered the Nuer’s people saying that whenever a mother receives a gift from her child, the pain of childbirth labour is gone forever.

“I think World Refugee Day could bring people together to understand the refugee situation,” Martha now suggested to her daughter.

“Exactly Mom, I remembered last year, June, you attended the event and you were given an orange T-shirt.”

“Hooo, is that the World Refugee Day? Okay, I now know. I went there last year. I was happy to see people dancing and hundreds of people siting in a huge circle. Big people on high ground were speaking to us as we sat facing them under a long net of opposite tents. I was amazed by the new T-shirt I got and if I was understanding their language, I could not have been happier,” Martha said.

Ahead of the previous year’s World Refugee Day celebration, there had been collaborative and successful preparation. Successive cleaning campaigns were conducted, and tents were dug into the ground to shell off the fervent Tongogara heat. The ground upon which the event was to be held and the main road leading to the event were watered to clamp down the dust. During the day, hundreds of people from all walks of life across Tongogara and the nearby hosting communities flooded into the event. Artists showcased ancient and modern singing and modern and traditional dances from Tongogara’s diverse community. The minister who graced the event spoke of the safety and dignity for people forced to flee. He reiterated the commiment made by the government of Zimbabwe to provide more livelihoods for refugees and asylum seekers so that they can rebuild their lives.

“Yes, Mom, that is World Refugee Day and how did you feel when they gave us the garden that we are farming now?” Nyabel asked her mother.

“I felt so happy, my daughter. My joy actually began when you started schooling here. I have been hopeful that we will have a chance to build our life once more and much better than before.” Martha was amused by how she and her daughter were gaining their traditional means of livelihood, farming. “But, daughter, I feel like my life will never be the same again.” she looked at her daughter who was preparing to cook. “Imagine living in a place where I can’t see, walk and talk with my people. The garden I farm is not enough and the land is burning the crops. I wish to have cattle because we Nuer people don’t depend on crop farming alone, but I own not even a goat. Fish and sorghum are not available when I need them and there is no season when anger is erased. If not because of war, home is the best.”

“Mom, for how long will we be living in the past? How can we build the present for the better future we want? How can we find hope away from our orignal land?” Nyabel was about to shed tears. Martha sensed that the conversation was taking a wrong direction. She was aware that Nyabel loathed any topic that unearthed lost memories back home, those memories that made her feel broken and hopeless.

“Daughter, listen to me, I am happy that you hope for the best. Hope is what gives one the meaning of what tomorrow looks like. I have not much future left for myself but you are the future. When we reached here, I asked myself what the life we are living will look like in years to come. Will it prepare you for a better future? I hope it does so that you take the responsibility over our lives,” Martha said to her eye-bewildered daughter.

“Mom, I am strong like you. I have the power to change our life. When we fled our home, I had no education. I couldn’t even say “Yes” or “No” in English, but look, I can read and write. It may be little but I am still young and what is impossible for me today may be possible tomorrow.”

Martha’s face brightened with happiness. She wore the pride of her daughter who seemed capable of bringing the fortune of education. Martha in her childhood had no means for education. Growing up, she compared her agemates who went to school and came home furnished with knowledge equal to Gods because they could see what others couldn’t see. They seemed to know magic, making unexpected things possible that only God could provide.

“Daughter, I believe that the world is upside down.” Martha’s words became more serious and intense. “I believe that humanity is losing itself slowly to the edge of the end that evil finally takes over. We exist in a world where some of us live a horrible life, and only a few people are working day and night to give them a dignified human life.”

“Mom, I know you have experienced much of the world at its worst. I can agree with you on many things. People say we have equal rights because we are human. I know they preach to us the words of love, care and acceptance because we are all equal. But when the love for ourselves fails, all that remains is rhetoric.”

“You are right, my daughter.” Martha threw her hands up to clarify her point. “Imagine tomorrow we all wake up like the little boy you told me about. That hungry bared-foot and shirtless child on the cold streets looking for something to eat, looking for a place to shelter. Trust me, humanity will find the cause of its problems the next day.”

Nyabel had told Martha a story about a ten-year-old boy moving from place to another with her mentally-ill mother. This boy survived on raw vegetables and scraps of food from neighbours’ bins. But most of the time he searched for food at the shops on the streets or stole it from the furious neighbours who beat him harshly.

“It is very sad, Mom.” Nyabel twitched her mouth to control her bitterness. “And also imagine if we were that forgotten mother whose lovely innocent daughter won’t have the benefit of a university education, or will never get any opportunity to do gainful work because someone labels her mother as ‘stateless.’ If we put ourselves in her shoes, humanity will find its true course of action.”

Nyabel’s voice trailed off, and tears crinkled over her cheeks. Martha listened and admired the wisdom and clarity of her daughter’s mind. Her daughter already knew the shape of the divided world of want and plenty.

Martha felt thankful that she and her daughter were granted refugee status. If their refugee status application had not been approved, they would have been living a double edge-sword life. A life full of the past miserable nightmares, a life with no means of income, livelihood or work, a life of no higher education for Nyabel, a life with no way for a durable solution or resettlment to a third country, a life living in shadows between the rock and the hard ground: rock because they couldn’t go back to the burning home, hard ground because they had no chance for a better living where they stayed.

The conversation quieted slowly as Nyabel brought the pot of the fish stew from the burning coal. She set up the table in the veranda and began serving the food. The aroma of the fish jolted the veranda air and Martha smiled at the appetizing smell. The traditional Nuer food, kop, the okra-fish soup, had no equal. They ate their traditional dinner of okra and fish stew with a taste that fell short of a Nile catch

After Nyabel prepared their beds, Martha and her daughter went inside their two-room house of bare, baked bricks and cemented floor that felt frosted to the sole of their feet in winter. The house’s rooftop was of an old iron-sheet with a tarpaulin on top to provide protection against raindrops. They sang a hymn in their mothers’ language in the sitting room before they finally went to their different rooms. The song was something about walking with the Lord in his eternal light and they closed it with prayer. “Sleep well, Mom.”

“Sleep well, daughter.” The room went quiet.

In Martha’s separate room shined a dim red bulb. Its insufficient flickering light sometimes made her struggle to find anything she was searching in corners of the room, underneath the bed or under the table. Martha thought that she had lost her eyesight because she could only see obvious things lately. She gazed at the dimming solar-powered bulb that grew numb in every minute that passed. Through the unsteady beaming of the light, she noted that the power would soon vanish. It would leave a reddish room like how the sun beckoning down left some sort of deadly brown horizon a few hours earlier. She lowered herself under her blanket, lying still and ready to sleep. She felt the soothing sense of sleep calling her from the world of hurdles and suffering to the corner of the world where she would be accorded a peaceful rest. But she knew that when she woke she would return to the awful world with more suffering to suffer and more hurdles to face. She imagined the moon freezing in the frosted clouds but still moving.

2 August, 2023