The Ways of My People
I forge an understanding of myself and the world around me. I was born into a large family: father, five wives, and thirty-two children. I also belong, as most Africans do, to a wider extended family, and to the community as a whole. The community among the Nilotic people...Nuer or Dinka...is viewed as the embodiment of reality, a reality present in everything in life. All Nilotic people realize their nature through relationships with others in the community. When I was four years old, I started to follow my mother as she collected firewood, fetched water, milked cows, pounded flour, and took care of my younger brothers and sisters.
My father was Nuer and my mother Dinka. I viewed myself as Nuer, but we spoke Dinka in and outside the home. All I did with my parents was what they knew. I can vividly recall evenings of storytelling around the fire in the village or in the cattle camps. It was mostly the grown-ups telling stories to the children, but everyone was interested and involved. We, the children, would re-tell the stories the following day to other children in the fields while we picked beans or groundnuts (peanuts), followed our mothers clearing the weeds, looked after the calves at the cattle camp, or enjoyed nature along the River Nile.
The great nature provided life, and the stories that shaped our lives. These stories, mostly with animals as the main characters, are full of stirring events, such as the river saving its people from the hot sun of sub-Saharan Africa. Foxes, hares, tortoises, or mice, though small and weak, were our heroes because they were full of innovative and clever ideas. We identified with them as they struggled against predatory brutes like lions, leopards, hyenas, and crocodiles. Their victories were our victories and through them we learned that the apparently weak can find ways to live in peace with the strong. We followed the animals in their struggles against hostilities of nature such as drought, rain, sun, and wind, where a confrontation often forced them to search for means of cooperation. But we were also interested in their struggles the animals often had among themselves. These struggles, against nature, predatory animals, and each other, reflected the struggles we experienced in real life.
The grown-ups did not neglect to tell stories with human beings as the main characters. There were two types of characters in human-centered narratives. One type was the true human being with qualities of courage, kindness, mercy, and social concern for others. The other types were fantasy characters. These characters were often frightening and cruel. There were human-eating humans and two-mouthed, mean types embodying hated and evil doings. They represented qualities of greed, selfishness, malaise, conflict, and self-interest that always worked for the downfall of humanity. These two types of characters personified what was good or bad for the larger community.
Cooperation as the ultimate good in a community was a constant theme. It could unite human beings with animals, like dogs, which were the human’s best friend against evil and predatory beasts. Cooperation is illustrated in the folk tale of how a tortoise, who was small and artistic, designed the beautiful colors of zebras, leopards, and other animals who were very kind and treated him nicely. Then little tortoise was threatened by a hyena, which was selfish and demanded for himself the most beautiful colors of all animals. The hyena was mean and cruel to the tortoise. The tortoise, though he was afraid, gave the hyena the ugliest colors of all. The message was clear: threats and intimidation are not the right way to get what you want.
In most of the folk tales, the hero is often a hard worker who uses his cattle (wealth) to support his kin, the poor, and the studious. The hero for a young girl is the mother figure, who is affectionate and toiling constantly for her family. When misfortune strikes, she cries out with tears and with protest, but her love and efforts never flag.
There were good and bad storytellers. A good one could tell the same story over and over again and it would always be fresh to us children. A good storyteller could repeat a story told by someone else and make it more alive and dramatic. The real differences were in the use of words and images, in the inflection of voices, the affecting of different tones, and the way the story related to real human experiences.
Thus, I learned to value words for their meaning and nuance. Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. My appreciation of the suggestive, magical power of language was reinforced by the games I played with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or nonsensical but musically arranged words. I understood that language had a beauty of its own, and also that it was the carrier of my culture, a culture of dignity and human complexity. Language, through images and symbols, gave me a view of my world. At the time, our home, the field, the cattle camps, and the River Nile were my pre-primary learning institutions, but to me, what is important here is that the language of my evening lessons, the language of my immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the fields and the cattle camps was one.
The social structure I grew up in is that of an extended family. Individuals in the Nilotic society find themselves governed by fixed family relationships that are determined by custom. All relationships are defined first by bloodline, then by the distinction between senior and junior status. The elders have the knowledge and the right to take the lead. The young must listen, learn, and obey.
The relationship between the father and the child is the most important of all the kinship relationships, for it is through the father that the blood of the family descends. The relationship with the mother is broader. It includes not only the biological mother but stepmothers as well. As a child, I received the same kind of motherly care from all my father’s wives, yet there were distinct differences when it came to the reality of the whole stratum of the family. The children of the same mother are known as a cieng (a household). The children of the same father identify themselves by referring to their biological mother.
Paternal uncles and aunts are part of the extended family. They are expected to respond to the demands of a brother’s children and give them what they want or need, as their father would do. The paternal uncle has the same rights over the children as does their father, and it is he who must provide socially and economically for the child if the father dies. The bonds uniting the paternal cluster of relatives are thus very tight. The children are obligated to express equal respect for all senior members of the father-clan.