Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Letter from an experienced relief worker about The Mark: A Novel of Dinka In the Time of War. "Carol and Mom" are friends of mine.

Hey Carroll, Hey Mom,

Well, I only read The Mark because you asked me to -- I actually try not to read too much fiction that is so close to the bone...I never even read Dave Eggers What is the What because it was just too relevant...too close.

But I read The Mark...and I have to say I was really blown away.  I thought it was just beautifully written.  It was an extremely respectful and honest portrayal of South Sudan, of the Dinka, of that place and that time.  I didn't actually overlap with Jeff, but in 1991, when I was on my Watson Fellowship, Jason and I were there during the great Dinka Famine -- in Bor, then Torit, Kapoeta and finally with Riek Machar over in Nassir.  I found the descriptions- the smell of the early morning fires, the ash, the flies of the mosquito camps, the muddy waters of the Nile -- all so familiar.  But then Jeff offered something more than I ever had -- which was this internal monologue which helped so much to make sense of what I experienced as an outsider.

I am not sure if you both realize -- but I became a nutritionist because of that time in South Sudan in 1991.  Up to that point I was interested, as an anthropologist is interested, in food systems, and famine and the political use of food as a weapon of war...but I had no real science/health leaning or background.  For no apparent reason, and in a move that could never be justified, UNICEF in Nairobi agreed to send Jason and me into South Sudan as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan.  Armed with passes issued by the SPLA and the confidence of knowing that John Garang had years earlier been a Watson Fellow himself, we flew up on a UN plane to Lokichogio. After two nights in the UN Green Tent Camp, we headed by road into South Sudan.  Our first inkling that something was amiss was when we met two Filipino aid workers who had their own vehicle loaded to the top with supplies -- they nodded to our backpacks and asked what we taking...really nothing -- a packet of biscuits for the road and a bottle of water.  They told us to go to the little shop and buy what we could find...perplexed but compliant, we went and bought 5 bags of ugali, five cans of beans, and a flat of water.  As we drove into South Sudan for the first time, we passed vehicle after vehicle, most of them UN, racing out of South Sudan.  Then, after about 3 hours of potholed roads, we started seeing the carcasses.  During the Dinka/Nuer battle, over 150,000 heads of Dinka cattle were slaughtered by AK-47.  The 1991 famine was the closest the Dinka have ever come to full annihilation -- no one knows the figures, but tens and tens of thousands of people died.  Without their cattle, sent from their grazing lands, the Dinka were starving.  We arrived in Bor just as the UNICEF guy was locking his front door -- he tossed us the keys to the house and the keys to the warehouse, gave me a book on emergency nutrition, leapt into his car and drove away.  For the next month, Jason and I lived in a famine area...it was intense beyond intense.  We opened the warehouse and started an emergency feeding program (by the book).  We helped with food distributions.  We were basically saved by WFP (UN World Food Programme) who had stayed and took us under their wing...our ugali and beans did not last long, though living in a famine really takes your appetite away.  But the WFP team fed us, and in exchange we drove around with them and worked with them...the feeding program was painfully successful -- we had 20 people the first day, 100 the second and over 500 every day after that.  People died in front of us.  Even now when I go to sleep I can see the faces of small children -- then I had no idea, but now of course I would recognize kwashiorkor, severe marasmus, vitamin A deficiency, rickets, all of the nutritional diseases...then I had the book and not much else.  One day we met an old blind man who had lost his wife and all his children except Maleesha.  They had walked one week because they heard there was a white woman doctor...it almost killed me when I realized that was me -- this stupid Peace Studies major from Swarthmore who was about as equipped to save a life as a gas station attendant in Isle of Palms.  He had walked and walked on a promise of relief -- and there was so little I could do...so pitifully little except to feed his last small child.  The work was heartbreaking, so much pain and death, but the resilience of the people was awe inspiring.  At one point the elders in the village gave us an ostrich egg as a gift for our work -- we made 6 five-egg omelets from that egg and I still have the empty shell today.  We were also given a goat, but at that point were confirmed vegetarians -- luckily we were able to "re-gift" it to our feeding centre team who had a small feast in the middle of nothing -- inviting Maleesha and his dad at our request.  It was a truly life changing experience.  I found the DInka to be some of the kindest, wisest and most gracious people I have ever worked with -- you could sit at dusk, as the old men and women sucked on their long-stem pipes, and feel a peace that did not deserve to exist in the chaos that were the Dinka ancestral lands at that point.  We communicated through a patchwork of English, Arabic and local language...but somehow it seemed enough -- I can never recall not being understood or not understanding what we were told.  The Dinka are amazing story tellers- it is an art -- and in the evenings different people would begin a tale -- to shouts of laughter, mixed with songs and verse, one person began where another left off -- it was as though each evening they were recreating what the day had taken.  They were tethering themselves to the Earth again in preparation of the next day.  What you felt was the continuity of history, a longevity that has always been difficult to understand, much less feel, for an American where things were measured in hours and days, not living memory and ancestor stories.  It is not possible to describe in words how painful it was for the Dinka to lose their herds -- raiding between the Dinka and Nuer has been happening since the beginning of time (not to mention women and children), but then the next raid would return the herd.  This was the first time that the cattle were simply slaughtered and left to rot. It was incomprehensible. The Nuer didn't want the cattle -- they wanted to cut out the heart of the Dinka.  The waste -- the unimaginable waste of killing a beloved cow that should by rights have been stolen and paraded was absolutely incomprehensible.  The famine that followed was the outcome of the blow -- but it was the trauma of the cattle loss that almost did the Dinka in.  So many Dinka died, but those who survived had to move to find humanitarian support -- I saw many children who moved in bands together without adults, and many men who brought their children, having lost everything else.  It was profoundly hard.   I loved my time there -- there was a gentleness, a completeness I have not felt again, as though each individual was born with a task and they knew what it was and what they needed to do...the death and destruction around them, the dislocation from losing their prized beloved cattle was somehow being overcome. After we finally were evacuated from South Sudan, and after the completion of the Watson year, I knew that I had to learn a trade.  I was determined that no one would ever walk 100 kilometres for my help unless I had something to actually offer.  So that is why I got my Public Health degree in International Nutrition and I have never regretted it.

So reading this book was amazing -- it reminded me of my time there but also gave me subtitles to the film that I never had.  Please thank Jeff for writing such a beautiful and thoughtful book and thanks to you for pushing me to read it.

It is hard to imagine that now we are in 2014, and again the Dinka and Nuer are killing each other -- this time the subtext is political power and oil, but the outcome is similar.  Over 750,000 people have been displaced and almost 200,000 have fled as refugees to neighboring countries.  Livelihoods are disrupted, lands have not been planted and over 8 million cattle are stranded without access to water or pasture. Over 3.7 million people are food insecure.  If the fighting continues, then there is a prediction that South Sudan could enter a famine in a few months.  It has been my full time preoccupation since the crisis began on the 15 December...and the world is watching as we spiral into a crisis that worsens on a daily basis.  It is heartbreaking, especially for those of us who have worked there and had hopes for the new nation.  The people are resilient, but there has to be a point where you just want your piece of land, your cattle camp, and your healthy herd and children and nothing more...except to be left alone to live your life without war and guns. 

Xoxoxo
Allison

March 11, 2014