Home on the Range

Published February 9, 2012

There’s no signage driving into Jalle. The rusted out Russian MIG to your left lets you know you’re close. A moment later, graceful crested cranes dart across your path and a few corrugated metal sheds appear along the road. Pieces of broken concrete keep the roof from blowing away in these high winds. This is the business district. Beyond that, goats roam between clusters of mud and thatch huts. Clearly I have been traveling in a space ship – time machine.

Out on our expansive, featureless building site, a distant dust devil offers the context my disoriented brain sought. Hot, dry and flat? Sounds like the plains of West Texas where I did my undergrad. This particular resemblance is thanks to the nearby dike that keeps the endless marshlands at bay during the dry season. As the wind whipped up the loose dirt, I could almost imagine that I was walking to class in a Lubbock dust storm. Except for instead of windmills on the horizon, there are tukuls. And while there isnt any cotton, there are cows and there is oil, both in the ground and in consumption. South Sudan is entirely oil dependent and runs on noisy diesel generators. You know the commercial where the guy cranks up a smokey, sputtering lawn mower motor attached to his computer? That’s pretty much urban South Sudan in a nutshell. Though oil exploration in the rural Jalle region was abandoned at the onset of the war, the legendary White Nile Oil Company is rumored to return at any moment to resume the search. Traces of their infrastructure remain.

Cows, on the other hand, can be seen everywhere. A family’s wealth in Jalle is measured in cattle. South Sudan’s version of cowboys are young men in a second-hand clothes with automatic rifles – but no horses. They protect the cattle from thieves but don’t really have to herd them. Apparently South Sudanese cattle know when to come home and which home is theirs. Blake and I were dumbfounded by the idea of a cow with a built-in nav system. But sure enough, when the sun sank low, the cows crossed back over the dike where they’d been enjoying the green grass and lumbered toward their barns. We’ve decided that African cows are infinitely smarter than American cows.

People in Jalle laugh when I describe longhorn steers. Their bulls have horns that sweep straight up. The residents of Jalle aren’t so different from small-town West Texans. They are an incredibly friendly, tight-knit community where word travels fast. When an overheated Blake declined to dig in at the bishop’s luncheon, our concerned chaperone came to inquire after his health the next day. ‘Nothing worries them like when you dont eat,’ Blake explained. As for me, being the woman with the camera, everyone knew my adjusted name (Mary) by day 2. Strangers greeted me with an enthusiastic and bemused tone of recognition, the same tone you use in the states when you greet your buddy who did something hilariously stupid the night before. Having no idea what they were actually saying, all I could gather about my budding renown was one man who referred to me in English as ‘Mary, the mother of aaaall the children’. I’m assuming this was in reference to the comet-tail of kids that trailed me everywhere. I did have a number of women mistake blemishes for mosquitos bites (the Dinka all have perfect, even skin) and were particularly concerned by the bugs’ apparent affinity for my face. I found it was less embarrassing to simply nod in agreement.

Finding these similarities dispelled my short-lived belief in space ship – time machines. Just like in West Texas, a long, hot day is rewarded with hazy swaths of color across the sky as the sun sets. However, I think African sunrises are my favorite. For those of you who know me and my distain for any hour before noon, I’m actually not lying. That first morning I stumbled sleepily out of the compound to find the village emerging from layers of golden haze. The sights and sounds of the village coming to life – the chorus of roosters, the tiny bleats of baby goats, the echoey calls of hawks – is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Marianne Nepsund, Rebuid Sudan Intern

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