How I Became a Spirit Totem

By Stephen Pech Gai

I was born with two beautiful and bold brown eyes. They were full of curiosity and awareness. My family referred to me as a precocious child with a smart temperament but equally mischievous. They attributed my uncompromised character to my birth on a battlefield, where I was delivered in a hurry and had my umbilical cord cut with the sharp edge of a sorghum blade. During my first year, I had just started toddling when Gatwunoa, a traditional spiritual man, asked my parents to bring me to his hut. It was per the norm that a boy child born is taken to him for blessing.

Gatwunoa liked to spend his days sitting in his round mud-wall and conical grass-roof hut. People believed that he was a messenger sent by a spirit named Kuoth Nhial, or God in Heaven, the creator in Nuer. Whenever he was in his hut, people would gather around to listen to his stories and folklore. He would describe rain, lightning, and thunder as God’s way of communicating with his people. When rain fails or lightning strikes a person or an animal, God is angry. By dictating when the rain will rain, God tells people when they should migrate to cattle camps or back to their homes, in the summer and rainy seasons respectively. If the rain hid itself in the sky or the scorching heat was shocking crops, Gatwunoa would be consulted mediate with God.

“You have finally given birth to a man,” he said while smoking his long pipe. “This child will be a leader; there will be many leaders but he will be a good leader.”

“How do you know that Gatwunoa?” my father asked.

“Nyariaka, go and see the sky,” said Gatwunoa to my mother.

“The sky is clear and blue,” my mother described what she saw outside.

“I can see through the ray of the sun, even from here.” Gatwunoa said, “The child you have given birth to is the same as what you have just witnessed in the sky. His mind will be as clear as the image of this summer sky, and he will have thoughts that you have not had before. His vision will be far-reaching, and he will accomplish his goals quietly but with satisfaction. He won’t make noise, but life can be turbulent at times. He may face hardships, but he won’t be defeated by them. He will be unbreakable.” My father, who was sitting with his chin in his hand, remained silent until the spiritual man instructed us to leave.

Gatwunoa was admired and well-liked not only because of his spiritual skills but because of his wealth. He owned almost half of the cattle in the camp. He was in his prime and had a large family. All of his accomplishments combined made him a revered person in his community. His prophecies were known to be accurate, and some even came true long after his death, so claimed his followers.


After spending the summer at a cattle camp, we were about to return home. My older sister, Nyawichtuomg, took me to our ancestral village, a daytime walk away from where we had camped our cattle. I love the experience of being carried; just to see the tree dancing and having a surrounding view of what I couldn’t see at my own height.

“Gatluoy, don’t bend your back, let your chin never touch my head, and don’t sleep,” my sister instructed before she swept me off the ground. I would keep my back straight for hours but when I felt a cramp in my back, I would lower my back a bit and my chin would accidentally strike her head. “I said don’t bend your back,” her voice rang in, furious. I felt as if I had broken the covenant. “You know when you bend, you become like metal because your weight increases, and when you sleep it is like you are dead, and any dead person is heavy as a rock,” she continued her teaching. 

Whenever she carried me, the horizon extended and I had an amazing view of the tips of the tall far trees swaying, as if they were walking towards us. If she put me down, so that I covered a few steps on my own while she took a rest, the horizon came close, the view of the trees stopped walking, and the happiness in me vanished as a pang of hunger bit my stomach. It all depended on who did the carrying. If my father or my uncle carried me, I could bend and sleep as I wished, but if it was my mother, my sister, or another girl relative, God forbid that I should ever bend. I couldn’t eat before the journey or even during it. My back stood straight as if it was reinforced with a piece of iron, and my neck remained stiff. 

As we walked the snaking footpath, farmers were laboriously weeding their farms. The pleasant weather stimulated a growing competition between the weeds and the crops. Both swayed at ankle height, but the weeds would eventually overtake the crops if two or more weeks passed unattended. I imagined one of the women working on the farm being my mother. Her garden would be overtaken by grasses. I thought of the mass of grasshoppers, as many as there were blades of grass in her garden. I don’t like grasshoppers, the way they flick as if they’re always ready for a fight. I brushed the thought off and recalled another memory:

In the winter, before we left for the cattle camp, some soldiers came to our village and found their way to our home. As a child who learned through stories, all I knew was that the doldier were footloose, frightening men who had no homes of their own. They owned nothing except for their guns and the filthy khaki and boots they wore, for they didn’t keep cattle or possess gardens. In the words of my grandmother, they are fighting for us, so we must feed them. Before they got to our village, word of their arrival in the neighboring village passed a day before. This allowed villagers to hide their valuable belongings, mostly food and clothes. On the next day, seven or more tall men with rifles swinging from their shoulders arrived, circling us from different directions, and entered our compound. 

One soldier seemed more aggressive than all the rest, a man who dressed shabbily and had an unstylish appearance; his gun was battered and rusty. His eyes blazed like lumps of red coal cutting through the thick night, fiery enough to set our grass-thatched house ablaze. I thought his hair and beard had never seen a blade, like our village madman’s. He rushed into our house and my mother stepped in after him. They stared at each other as if they were on stage for wrestling.

“Rujiaal, akil gaatwen?”  He spoke in a language that only those who had left our village and returned after many years could understand

“Where are the men and food?” a clan soldier translated.

“Do you want men or do you want food?” my mother responded in the face of the looming violence. This enraged him like a flesh wound sprinkled with salt. He jumped forward and pinched my mother on the check. The look of him jumping at my mother horrified me. My heart beat faster, like a plane readying for take off. At that moment, I wished to grow as fast and tall as him, so that I could fight him. But there I stood, below his knees with only two tiny arms and feeble legs, powerless, like a strand of hair blown across a balding head. I wanted to tell him there were no men at our home, that my father had left before we woke up, and he could have the food. My mother hid it under the pumpkin leaves in the garden. I wanted to say go and carry it away, but mom looked at me to stay silent. The men left empty-handed.

“Gatluoy,” my sister called up, bringing me back from my harsh memories. “Do you know where we’ve reached?”

“Yes, I can see our home is coming,” I replied in a joyous tone.

“When are you learning to speak properly?” she asked. “You don’t say ‘our home is coming,’ you say we are going home.”

“Okay, sister.”

“Good boy. And what are you going to tell our mother about the journey?”

“Well,” I began, “that we left in the morning without eating; that the way was long and my back hurt; that people were preparing their gardens; and all the trees and grasses along the road were green.”

“Do you think that telling her that you didn’t eat in the morning will make her cook faster, or stoke the fire to make more heat?” she reprimanded in a tone conveying both guilt and intimidation.  I knew that she needed me to omit that part of the story or to say I had eaten before we started the walk, but I kept quiet, and soon enough we arrived in our compound, where Mom and our younger sister welcomed us with celebration.

“How are you Gatluoy?” My mother lifted me and kissed my cheek. As usual, she chanted my childhood praising song.  I always enjoyed those moments of her singing my baby lullabies to a grown-up me. Such occasions only occurred whenever we met after a long break or when I did something that made her happy. 

“I’m fine Mom,” I said while tugging down and running to hug my sister.

“Your son is as heavy as a blanket soaked in mud water,” my sister complained while stretching her neck and shoulders from side to side.

“Did you give him something to eat?” my mother asked, and my sister said yes while looking away. Mom looked at me and I stared back at my sister who just walked away.  Mom easily discovered that my sister was lying and took to her heels to prepare some food.

As a girl, a firstborn in a community where girls bear the heavy domestic work, my elder sister’s mundane house chores were heavy like our mother’s tasks. During the crop growing season, my parents attended to cultivation and the housework fell on my sister’s shoulder. Nyawichtuong cooked us breakfast and dinner, washed our clothes, tended us during the day, prepared our sleeping place every evening, and our mother cooked the evening meal. My sister would sweep the house and lay down our mats and blankets on the floor before we settle to sleep. Our house’s floor smeared with cow dung and sand to hold the dust down. We would leave a fire burning so the wood smoke could carry mosquitoes out and the flames provide light at the same time. All the circular windows were closed so that mosquitoes, other insects, and snakes would not have the luxury of sharing the night with us.

On the evening that shook my life, I went to spread out the mat for myself so I could sleep. Nyabuok, my next oldest sister, was asked whether I had been running around during the day or if I had messed up with something that would later come to light. Anything that one of us children had done, whether good or bad, would come forth in our evening conversations.

“Gatluoy didn’t even play,” she said. “His friend and I were asking him what was wrong, but he kept giving us strange looks.”

“What was he doing apart from looking at you? How was his movement, and his breath?” My mother asked as though she was a doctor doing fieldwork.

“I saw him sit, stand, and sit again as if a strange spirit was about to enter him,” my sister explained confidently. My mother nodded her head in agreement, for she thought that a spirit was on its way.

During our daytime playing, we each chose partners to imitate the setup of a real family. A boy and girl formed a household. Whatever we did reflected what we saw and hear from our parents. Our parents told us that children were formed from mud and we were all mud, so we made our children out of mud. In spring or planting season, we made our play huts with tall grasses. However, we’d always mold our children, cattle, and cooking items from the loamy soil. In our playhouses, gender roles were decisively followed; any divergence was taboo, a sort of abomination. The girls cooked, took care of the children, collected firewood, and went to the farm. The boys took care of the cattle, went out to drink, went to war, and would also beat the girls if they ever disagreed about anything or questioned the power of the father. This was how we had played on that day when my sister and mother thought a spirit might have entered me.

By midnight, I was writhing, crying, and jumping up and down. My body was feverish and my head was aching. My mother fled into the darkness to call my grandmother so our deity could be consulted about the affliction. On a night that rang with the cries of a stricken child, my grandmother’s god failed to possess her, despite a series of invitations by songs and promises of appeasement. My screams became louder and louder, like the thunder of the first rain in the dry season. I lay in pain in the helpless night at our grass-thatched house.

The night passed and morning broke, but I had no rest. My head was swollen, and my right eye was bloodshot, filled with red streaks. My right hand and my right leg were paralyzed, and my neck was rigid. As the sun divides the earth into twelve hours apart for light and darkness, my body was divided—half of me was unconscious while the other side was living. I was bedridden; floor-ridden in fact. I could only move myself around with the support of my left hand and left leg. It was unbelievable, but my mind was unaffected, staying as vivid and sharp as it was before the misfortune.

There were no medical facilities in the whole administrative area. While I suffered in the arms of my helpless mother, the knowledge of a professional medical practitioner coming to my rescue was a pipe dream. We could see airplanes trailing across the sky or the bombs they dropped turning the thick bush into flames, but all were forces of magic and evil to us. Medicine was a magic we did not have. There was no doctor to save an innocent child’s eye from a curable ailment, or another child next door from dying of malaria, another from dying of typhoid, and another one from cholera or snake bites. The power to save me from the untimely misfortune was out of reach, unbelievable that it could lie in the hands of human beings of flesh and blood. So I lost my eye.

After a month, I began to recover. I began to feel pain in the right side of my body. I could stand and take some steps, stretch my right hand, and turn my head fully. As time went on, I could walk around the yard. But unfortunately, I couldn’t see with my right eye. My eye shrunk and its color switched from red to a spotty grey, then to a blue-ish sky sprayed all over with glints of light and thin clouds.

My parents knew that my eye was gone. It wasn’t covered by a cataract, like my grandmother’s. Sometimes her cataracts could be rolled aside with the help of an ointment so that she could see again. But mine was not a cataract; it was a total loss.

In two months, I’d recovered my mobility and was ready to rejoin the normal routine of playing with other children. But when my partner saw my right eye, she recoiled and refused to play with me. I asked for other partners, but everyone complained that I looked like a ghost, a one-eyed child, with limping legs and a clumsy hand that they had never seen before. My sister was not ashamed of me, for it’s true that blood is thicker than water. She and her play partner allowed me to settle in front of their hut, like a totem or some sort of a personal god, guarding the whole village against the malicious attack of the enemies.


I remember a story told about a wild cat who had two families and had to divide her time to meet their demands. One of her families stayed in the wild, and the other lived among humans. The cat wandered between them. Once, when she was with her family among humans, a person who was tired of the rats gnawing during the night begged her to stay, and, as a sign of her welcome, they cut the cat’s ear in the middle. But she still had two families, and one day she went back to her family in the wild. They were upset by her ear. She looked different from others, and her family said she should simply go back to the humans and not return until she had her proper ear. She went to the human to ask for her ear back, but her cry was mistaken as hunger for food. They gave her food, but she continued crying, so they thought she was sick. She rummaged around the dustbins, the heaps of cow dung, and decomposing maize stalks in the backyard, looking for her ear, but couldn’t find it. When I lost my eye, I was like that cat, a sojourner from the land of the unknown, stuck between my kind and the incident that claimed my eye.

8 October, 2023