Sunday, September 5, 2010


This morning, my friend Jackie the cook tied a string of beads around my waist and tucked them underneath my shirt. They are the colors of the Pan Bol clan, she explained (or so I interpreted; she and I share a common vocabulary of about 100 words), and since you are Pan Bol too, you should have them.

I "joined the clan" about a month ago, when I started introducing myself with a Dinka name: Abuk Chol Deng. It makes greeting people much more enjoyable, and a familiar name is much easier for others to remember than my foreign western one. Names here are imbued with meaning, indicating your place in the family lineage as well as something more personal, such as the color of the ceremonial bull present at your birth.

Of course, my father's name isn't Chol, nor my grandfather's Deng, but I'm happy for the beads just the same. In the past 10 weeks I've begun to feel very close to some of the staff here, and it's touching to know that the affection is reciprocal.

At the same time, there are frequent reminders, some constant, some more jarring, of how little I really understand about this place. Like when we witnessed, while pausing in the market on our way back from the field, a 12 year-old thief being dragged off to the local police station by four grown men, screaming in terror. He will likely be beaten. 50 lashes should teach him a lesson, and dissuade others from stealing, according to my colleagues.

There's certainly a problem with miscreant youth in the Wunrok market. Dressed in tattered rags, they affix themselves to anyone who looks like he might have money with an impressive persistence. Apparently, most are not "street kids" in the usual sense, since their parents are usually nearby. So the hiding is as much a punishment for the parents as it is for the child in question.

Stealing should not go unpunished, I agree, but I can't stomach the beating of children. Yes, the "prison" here is an outdoor bench to which prisoners are chained, exposed to the whims of passersby and the beating sun. No, there are no social programs here offering alternatives to begging and other mischief for uneducated kids. Maybe physical punishment is the most effective way to manage crime in the circumstances. But it's still a shock, and one that leaves me feeling quite bewildered by the place where I now find myself.

There are more such stories. I hear them in bits and pieces, never quite understanding the whole picture. Each is a glimpse into a dark, hard and wild land that my ordered American mind cannot really imagine. Remember our deaf cook, who when we last visited her was recovering from a miscarriage? Her sister was murdered and dumped into a river a few weeks ago, by a group of girls who invited her out into the bush to collect firewood.

I just discovered that one of our guards, whose name I have finally learned and who when I last saw him was cheerfully preserving a cowhide, is a known pedophile who was imprisoned last year for impregnating a young girl, something he had apparently done six times before. Although our organization will not be renewing his contract, thankfully, he will remain at large in the local community. He has made amends with the families of the girls by paying them off with a few cows.

I was in Africa once before, in a small village in southeastern Burkina Faso. I was chatting with two French women with much more experience in the country than I had. I was four months into my stay, and I remember remarking that I felt like I was starting to figure things out. Their reaction was severe. No, they said, you do not understand anything about this place.

I would like to think that I understand some things, that the connections I feel are real, that reaching out consistently has not left me empty handed. Yet as much as I would like to join the Pan Bol, my father is not Chol, and I don't yet have a grandfather named Deng.

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