Hope Away from Home

By Stephen Pech Gai

The sun slowly ascended in the sky, casting soft rays on the land. Here, the soil that was illuminated by the bright heat of the sun belonged to generous people who coexisted peacefully with those who had been forced to leave their homes by wars.

Nyabel looked across the sky and smiled at the growing sun. She broke into the morning song while taking her toothbrush to brush her teeth. “Oh good sunshine, we thank you for a new dawn for we shall think anew. Oh good sunlight, we ask your generosity for this long day so we learn anew!”

The sun had a new appearance since Nyabel and her mother had fled wars in South Sudan. It had shifted from the middle of the sky and now drew a different path. September is the rainy month where they came from, but her mother’s land rolled over like a bedsheet that gives way to a new layer of other sheets, and here she is at Tongogara Refugee Camp, home away from home. Nyabel went inside and checked her schedule for the day. Washing plates, breakfast, and English lessons for the morning and fetching water, cooking lunch, and going to buy fish in the market for the afternoon. The day was Monday and it meant business like any other day.

“Nyabel, bring out plates before the sun opens its nakedness on you.”

”Mom, my teeth must shine before the sun shines,” said Nyabel.

“Your teeth are not bright and they won’t shine before the heat rays. Come and wash the plates, daughter, it is getting hot,” her mother said.

“Mm, Mom, you know me very well, you know how beautiful I was when I was at home. But here I am, pimples all over my face, my arms are thinning, my weight is shrinking and I have lost the glorious posture because my mind is clogged by things beyond my power.”

“We will talk all day long if we are to be giving testimonies of erstwhile beauty. But I know how beautiful you were, my daughter. I know very well that a body that hosts hunger cries of no beauty. A Nuer proverb says that buttocks that have flattened because of nothingness won’t emerge at different places in times of bountifulness.”

Martha picked a three-legged wooden stool and sat with her back facing the warmth of the sun while looking at her daughter who had just jumped into washing plates under the veranda. “What are you making for breakfast today, beauty?” her mother asked.

“Mom, leave flattering me with long extinguished beauty.”

“You are gorgeous my daughter, you may not be the most beautiful one in the world of privileged people but you are the most precious person I have in life.”

Nyabel grinned. “I think I will make porridge because I need to fetch water before running to this so-called English lesson that is more like an introduction to Swahili.”

“Are you telling me that you are instead learning Swahili, not English?”

“No Mom, I didn’t say that we are learning Swahili but what I meant was we are made to understand English in Swahili.”

Nyabel broke the conversation by putting a saucepan on burning charcoal in a mud stove just a few feet away from where she and her mother sat. She came back and continued the washing. She used a piece of soap cut from a blue bar received from the World Food Program and a piece of net as a loofah in her right hand as she scraped each plate to the next. She dragged the bottom-charred pot on the sandy and rocky ground to remove the soot of charcoal. The smoke from the coal darkened even the iron roof covering the small veranda over the fireplace.

Her mother observed her silently. Martha’s beautiful giraffe’s neck, twinkling eye, and tiny mouth could be seen in her daughter. In her girlish age, Martha was known as the beautiful giraffe of the village not only because of her charming neck but also her swift long legs and arms. Many years ago, Martha eloped with her childhood boyfriend and the whole village was dumbfounded. Gossip about her was conferred in whispers but euphoria dawned later after Gatluak, her husband, paid the family seventy cows for dowry.

After the porridge was ready and the washing completed, Nyabel fit three buckets into each other and carried them to the water point, a three-minute walk away. When she returned, her Mom remained in silence.

“Mom, why are you quiet? Is something wrong?” Nyabel asked her mother.

“Nothing is wrong, my daughter. I am just worried about your grandmother and your uncle.”

On that fateful night four years ago when the men with guns struck their home, Nyabel’s grandmother and Bidiit, her uncle, crossed the River Nile to the West while Nyabel and her mother crossed to the East. After they heard rumors of the war, Martha advised Bidiit to join them but they chose to live a life divided by the Nile and now by the war.

Nyabel breathed out deeply. She was always uneasy when her mother talked about the war, the loss of her father, the dangerous escape she and her mother made. She had gone through many depressed moments and finding a friend in this new place had helped her brush away the miserable and fatal memory from home. “Mom, my uncle and my grandmother are safe. They may not be here with us but wherever they are, I hope they are in a land of peace like we are and that whoever hosts them is giving them the sanctity and dignity they deserve.”

“Amen, daughter, they are safe,” her mother said hopefully, raising her head.

Nyabel poured the porridge into a nickel cup. She held the cup and it quickly burnt her and she changed her mind, poured the porridge again into a broad plate, put two spoons into a cup and presented it to her mother. Her mother, whose thoughts were relaxed with the counseling of her daughter, took her porridge with her daughter on the same plate. After they were done with their breakfast, Nyabel went to bring her buckets which were filled by a generous neighbor at the house-stead shared tap, and carried them home. She quickly prepared herself for school, hugged her mother, and left for the English class.

The Community Adult Learning Centre was meant to equip adults and young people with basic English. Young people who showed signs of potential in subjects such as math and science came to the Learning Centre to learn English in order to register for secondary school. Other learners, like Nyabel, started from basic English. After Nyabel spent two hours at the Learning Center that closed at noon, she returned home. She found her mother boiling some corn maize for lunch. “Mom, how are you? Why bother yourself to cook when I can cook?”

“Daughter, do you really think I am that old? A woman of my age can farm a garden as far as the horizon,” Martha said. She stirred a long-handed spoon in the pot and threw some corn in her mouth to check if the maizes were ready. “Please, have some rest.” Martha pointed Nyabel to a stool propped at the wall in the corner of the veranda.

“We may need some vegetables and dry fish for supper today.” Nyabel knew how important fish was to her mother. As someone who grew up along the Nile, Nile perch and Tilapia were like taking a bite of home.

Nyabel picked up her basket and passed by her friend’s home so she could accompany her to the market. Pamela was Nyabel’s source of solace in this new home where language was a barrier to socialization. When they made friends at the Community Learning Centre, they were inquisitive about what they could learn from each other. Pamela was from Congo and spoke five languages: Swahili, French, basic English, Lingala and Tshiluba. Nyabel spoke four languages: good Arabic, basic Swahili, basic English and Nuer, her mother language.


“Pamela, there is a knock on the gate,” Pamela’s mother told her daughter.


“Karibu,” Pamela shouted a welcome and the visitor opened the gate. “Oh, rafiki yangu, karibu nyumbani.” Pamela welcomed Nyabel to their home in Swahili. Most of the time their conversation was in Swahili but they slid into English, too.

“Pamela, my friend, take me to the market, my mother needs those salty dry fish. She is trying to adopt Tongogara as her village across the Nile,” Nyabel told her friend.

“Dada, you are not the only one.” She addressed Nyabel as a sister in Swahili. “My mom would wander and walk the whole market searching for sombe. Adults never part ways from who they were. For them, home is language and food,” Pamela said to her friend. When Pamela spoke, she left no break to be interrupted.

Pamela had told Nyabel many times about sombe, the Congolese soup, and it seemed she would continue telling her. “For many of us Congolese, sombe is the traditional vegetable soup of many recipes. You have to grind together cloves of garlic, onions, green pepper, and a lot more vegetables with the cassava leaves.” Pamela took a short breath and continued. “Nothing embraces various vegetables like sombe. My grandmother referred to it as the chief of the clan. She once said before she died that if the world is sombe, everyone would feel at home no matter how small or how big their texture.” Pamela knocked her toe onto a small stone.

“Sorry sister,” Nyabel sympathized with her friend when Pamela bent down to soothe the lump of pain from the rock.

“No problem, my sister, on Tongogara roads, small stones like this hide under this loose soil and wait until a careless foot hits on them,” Pamela responded. They both laughed.

“How does your mother manage that heavy work of making sombe at her age?” Nyabel asked.

“She tells me she is still young and strong in her fifties,” Pamela answered.

Nyabel and Pamela, who were in their earlier twenties, burst into long and endearing laughter as they drew closer to the market.

“Pamela, I think it is sombe that keeps your mother strong as it is the salty fish that rewinds the taste of the Nile perch for my mother.” They laughed more strongly and chose the direction to the eastern part of the market.

After they walked the whole market looking for dry fish and a few vegetables for Pamela’s mother, they bought some at the edge of the market from an elderly mother who sold well-preserved fish and vegetables at affordable prices. This mother came to the Camp four consecutive days once a month with her sacks full of vegetables and fish from the nearby host communities, and she was the best choice in the market. It was hard to get fresh and quality vegetables and it was equally difficult to get well-preserved dry fish. The elderly woman always returned to her home with empty sacks.

“Nyabel, money can move anything,” Pamela said. Tongogara market was brimming with all types of goods. The market grew bigger at the end of the month and shrank throughout the month from cycles of Mapokezi, the $15 given to refugees at the end of each month.

In a short while, the friends gave each other a hug goodbye at Pamela’s gate.

On her way back home, Nyabel felt the warmth of the sun on her forehead. Much of its voracious temperatures had gone with the day and it was to set in a few hours. The dust in the atmosphere and the sun’s slanted position made rays as mild as those that rise at dawn.

14 June, 2023