After I was born, the seventh of nine children, my mother and I returned from the hospital to her simple string bed, in a cement-block house in a little town called Wau. My parents named me Alek, after one of my beloved great-aunts. Alek means "black spotted cow," one of the most common and best-loved types of cow in Sudan. It's also a symbol of good luck for my people, the Dinka. I got my long body from my father—I'm nearly six feet tall—and my mother gave me my smile. My inky skin came from both of them.
When a child is born to the Dinka, the family has a party. When I was born, family and friends came from all over, thanks to the bush telegraph. There were very few telephones where I grew up, so my father mentioned my birth to someone at the market. And that woman told a man who was delivering rice to a place up the road. He told someone there, who was taking a herd of cattle south, toward the villages. And pretty soon the news of my birth had spread far and wide. Some of my relatives traveled for hours in the backs of trucks, or walked across miles of barren landscape to reach our home.
The women got together and made oils and perfumes from herbs and bark, which they soaked for days and mixed in special ways that only the elders know. As my mother tells it, the house was filled with women in their traditional robes and everything smelled wonderful. For two days these women cared for my mother and me. They fed her a special porridge and chicken soup, and wiped her brow with damp cloths. She didn't have to do anything but lie back, take special baths, and luxuriate in sensuous smells. Then the men brought a black goat to sacrifice, according to our tradition. Everyone ate good millet cakes and other sweets, which were such a rare treat in my family. As custom dictated, my mother stayed in the house for forty full days and nights after she gave birth to me.
It was a rare moment of peace in my country, and I was blessed with a very special welcome into the world. A Dinka welcome.
My people have lived in the southern Sudan for thousands of years. We're related to two gracile East African tribes, called the Nuer and the Masai, which make up the Nilotic people, who are known for their dark skin and tall, lean bodies. There are about twenty Dinka tribes altogether, and each is divided into many smaller groups, with villages spread over a huge area. My family is from the region called Bahr el Ghazal, in the southwestern part of the country. Bahr el Ghazal is also the name of a river that meanders through the swamps and ironstone plateaus until it joins the White Nile at a lake called, simply, No. The White Nile goes on to meet the Blue Nile at Khartoum, and proceeds from there to Egypt as the river we know as the Nile.
Based on the stories my parents and grandparents told, it seems that Sudan has always been a violent land. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slave traders came through this territory, capturing Dinkas and others and taking them north to be sold in the Arab countries. It is said that even in the twenty-first century, children from the south have been enslaved and sold.
The main thing to understand about my country is that it has always been split between the Islamic Arab north and the animist and Christian south. They don't ever seem to mix that well and the north has always tried to dominate the south. The British, who ruled Sudan from the late nineteenth century until the 1950s, governed the north and south separately, but in the 1940s, just before independence, the British gave in to pressure from the Islamic leaders in the north to unite the country. The northern government then proceeded to impose Islamic culture on the southern people, most of whom weren't Muslim or Arab. Of course, there's money involved, too. Sudan's vast oil fields are in the south, along with a lot of fertile land and water.
The south has never wanted to be dominated by the Muslims in the north; in 1955 a brutal civil war broke out and lasted until 1972. Then, in that year, both sides signed the Addis Ababa Accord, which guaranteed autonomy for the southern Sudan. I was born five years later.
Since we've always been seminomadic, totally dependent on the weather and whipped by the forces of political change around us, the Dinka are used to living through cycles of wars and uprisings followed by peace and prosperity, hunger and then bounty. In the wet season, rural Dinka live out in the villages, in conical, thatch-roofed huts, growing millet and other crops. In the dry season, they take their cattle to riverside camps. We Dinka are born expecting change.
The Dinka have never had a central government or anything like that, except those imposed on us by the leaders of Sudan. Instead, we are divided into family-based clans, and Dinka are very aware of which clan they belong to. Some of the more important clans will have leaders who influence the whole tribe. But in general, the clans are split into smaller groups and each of these will have control over just enough land to provide water and pasture for their beloved cattle.
These animals are so essential to the Dinka that even though my parents raised us in a small, relatively cosmopolitan town called Wau, far from their home villages, my mother still kept about fifteen head of long-horned cattle in our courtyard.
Like my father, Athian Wek, my mother, Akuol Parek, grew up in a thatched hut in a village south of Wau. My mother has . . .