Sometimes people ask me why I’d rather be a journalist than anything else. “Don’t you wish you were the person making headlines instead?” This question always strikes me as peculiar and a little disturbing, because it suggests that news is about the Big Guys Up There, the rich and famous and powerful, that they are doing important things and we the common people are meant to read about, admire and emulate them. It suggests too that the most desirable place for us to be is there at the center of the story, not on the periphery - speaking, not listening; being seen, not seeing; stars, far removed from darkness.
To me, the most important place to be is on the side, in the margins, behind the building in the back of the abandoned yard. That’s where the dust and shadows, secrets and stories are kept. That’s also where you find the people that the big guys want you to forget, and that do not have space to speak for themselves.
Yesterday a local journalist’s father told me about his son's abduction. The 27-year-old had written a column that called on followers of the ruling party to stop behaving like “mindless animals” and think for themselves. National Security kidnapped and kept the journalist incommunicado for three months before his family secured the connections to get him out of the “blue room,” South Sudan’s secret detention center for enemies of the state.
“Stop writing,” Abu Journalist told his son. “Go to university, get out of South Sudan, and maybe come back and write then - but it’s not safe now.” His son said yes and stayed home for four days before he was abducted again, this time by masked gunmen who spoke in Dinka colloquial language and roared at him, “What did you write about our president?” They must have been illiterate, because his column didn’t mention the president at all. A few days later, the journalist’s father received a call: his son was lying in the cemetery. When the father rushed over with two friends, they found the journalist propped against his backpack, half-conscious. He was covered in blood, fresh and red across his chest, and burned from the hips down, his trousers twisted into blackened flesh.
“Kan fi nar, nar, it was fire everywhere,” Abu Journalist said, patting his own legs up and down and up and down. He wrung his hands before me, describing how he'd carried his son to the hospital, feeding him mango juice while a doctor scooped melted skin and trouser from his legs. “I cannot see my son like this. I would die before seeing my son die. There is nothing wrong with writing, ya3ni, nothing wrong with any job my children want to do. But not when they are walking through fire. I cannot."
Hours later, I sat in a shack of a home, 3 x 3 meters of mud and straw under a tin roof, housing my displaced 27-year-old friend Valentino and his family of 9. I perched on one of two beds, squeezed between three women each scolding 2-3 children, flies crawling on our foreheads. The fabric covering their makeshift windows hung heavy and damp in the heat. A plasticky white Jesus stretched his mouth into a thin smile at us from a poster on one wall, ‘SAVIOR’ in block letters above him and John 3:16 printed below. Valentino is from the Upper Nile region of South Sudan and teaches at a nearby school, making 900 SSP ($30 USD) a month, supplemented with manual labor in his time off. He wears jeans and a black t-shirt with white graffiti letters. He’s tall and inky dark, a typical Dinka but without the customary scars that their tribe carves into men's foreheads.
Valentino didn't get that coming-of-age ritual because at age 13, his cattle herder father got everyone in their village to sell a bull so he and 9 other boys could journey to Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, and seek education. The 10 boys spent two months walking across then-Sudan, smuggling onto an Ethiopian trader’s truck (stuffed full of biscuits, but their 17-year-old leader wouldn’t let them touch a single one), talking their way across the Kenyan border and finally entering school. He grew up with those boys in the camp until a few of them were taken to Nairobi by a Sudanese-American who wanted to “help” them - but abandoned them after 9 months because he'd decided to pursue a graduate degree in Texas. Valentino went back to Kakuma, but by now his refugee ID had expired, which meant no access to aid.
So Valentino went home to his village. He’d only finished primary school, but that was enough to become a headmaster there. For two years, he taught at the village, giving his 700 SSP ($24) of income to his mother every month. One day, she called him and his father together and announced: "Valentino must go back to school." Without anyone knowing, she’d only spent 200 SSP each month, stashing the remaining 500 SSP until now she had a few thousand in savings, all to send her son back to Kenya. moved by his wife’s determination, Valentino’s father sold ten cattle, enough for their son to complete high school education and become a full-time, fully-qualified teacher.
In 2013, war broke out first between the Dinka and Nuer in Juba, and then in Upper Nile, especially in Valentino's village of Duk, which sat on a border between the two tribes. That’s when his mother died. "How did she die?" I asked Valentino. He flinched.
“Now I feel like crying,” he said, looking at the ground with a forced grin. We were quiet for a moment, the women and children around us still chattering and shushing one another in Dinka language, oblivious to our English conversation.
“Ask me again,” Valentino said.
“How did your mother die?” I asked.
“I was at the school teaching when it happened. My father, he loved me too much. He wanted to tell me there was fighting in our area, so he came to the school. She was left behind with the children at home. The men came to our village. They were burning everything and killing, and we couldn’t get in, we couldn’t get home. By the time we got back she was dead."
“No, my siblings didn’t die. They ran away but she didn’t run with them. She stayed with two. They were 5 and 3."
“Yeah, they survived. I know because the older one told us. You know we live on a border so we understand the Nuer tongue. So he said he heard the soldiers when they came, they told her, ‘You have two things to choose: give us yourself and we kill you, or else we kill your children.’"
“I guess they kept their word. My brother and sister lived."
“She loved us too much."
I cried with Valentino for his mother, and because I was in his hut of searing heat and empty stomachs. I saw their corner of makeshift kitchenware, damaged pots and pans that they fill with water and leaves snatched from the neighbors’ trees outside. I knew how hard he'd fought for so many years just to live, to learn, to stand up and have a place in this world, and I knew all he wanted now was to go to university. It costs some 5000 SSP a year, less than $200 USD, but that was a galaxy away for him. It’d be $800 for all four years. I’ll make more than that writing one article. Valentino eats leaves and reaches into the dark.
Here I am in my Father’s world, astounding beauty and crushing pain all swirled together, snatching your breath away. Another day this week, we drove to Terekeka, 3 hours of bumpy road outside of Juba. The entire way was laced with white and golden butterflies, flocking and fluttering from the clumps of deep red mud. Baby goats grazed in idyllic green fields. We passed occasional pools, dark silhouettes dipping themselves into them to bathe. Little girls sold us peanuts and acacia seeds. We ran into an entire cattle camp crossing the road, and I photographed a herder boy carrying a lamb, his forehead scrunched in concentration, gait steady as he and the flock marched forward. A Mundari girl carried a bucket of water high on her head, chin tilted up as her skirt swayed, her steps a metronome keeping the beat for a sea of cattle’s horns surging behind her.
I'm on a fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation, and I am thankful for companions on this trip who know how to see and how to listen. As a freelancer I’m accustomed to slipping about on my own, going without fixer, translator or security guy most of the time, let alone my own private drivers and all-expenses-paid hotels. I’m more likely crashing on someone’s couch, squeezing onto public buses and absorbing days or weeks-full of sadness to be digested alone at night in the dark.
The difference, especially with a group of all women reporters, is palpable: you are allowed to be a little sad. You can carry the stories together. We are seeing layered tales, scribbling down and photographing the corners and edges of sorrows that overlap and ricochet off one another. When my photographer friend Sara talks about being stuck at the hospital door, watching a family wail and cry, an old man crumbled in age, for their daughter who has died in childbirth,
I know the weight of her witness.
And when she tells me, a few days later, that she dug into the story and found that girl could have been saved if only she’d had a blood transfusion, that she’d been waiting for days but no one in her family came until she’d passed away, that she was just one of more than 30 women teetering between life-and-new-life or death-unto-life after having given birth at the maternity ward, and that all the doctors are on strike because they haven’t been paid for months, so the women are alone,
I feel the weight of that too.
Sometimes I think we-the-comfortable are more in need, soul-wise, to remember how little we are, how evil is the lie that good and evil do not exist, and how desperate and urgent it is to fight against oppression, injustice and hatred with an insistence on seeing and speaking the truth. How badly we need mercy. How thirsty we are for grace. How vacuous and silly it is to grow obsessed with my achievements and career and need for glory and admiration.
I am ready to leave South Sudan but pray not to forget. One woman sits in my heart like a queen: 42-year-old Abuk, who was sold at 13 as a slave to work on a millet plantation for rich Arabs who'd bought her from traders that burned her village down, killed her father, then abducted her and her mother while they were fleeing as refugees. After escaping slavery, her mother died of disease, leaving Abuk and her husband to survive in Khartoum doing laundry and building houses. They fled again, raising their children in an Eritrean refugee camp. South Sudan's independence was supposed to bring peace at last, but last year Abuk lost two of her children in bombing on Malakal. Three of her other kids were so traumatized they couldn't recognize their mother, but that didn't stop them from asking her where their missing brothers were.
I met habibti Abuk, mother and survivor, in the same cramped hut with Valentino. I still see her expressions as she told her story, face moist with sweat but clear as ice before me. "What would you do if you were president of South Sudan?" I asked her. She answered clear and straight: bring education for all women and girls, bring water taps to all the villages, and declare equal split of resources and power between all tribes and all people. No discrimination. Knowledge and water. Truth and life. Walls and tribes and hatred torn down. Life abundant, life to the full.
I pray for her vision to spread.
I pray for her voice to rise.
I put my pen to paper.
I am happy to keep my name far from the headlines, shrugged into a corner, small print, a recorder, an eye, an ear.
There is space here, and truth that pierces, but so does light, so does birth, and it is the piercing that keeps us alive.