It’s a week from Christmas: today’s reading of the Annunciation stops me in my tracks. The images on offer by Google are typically anachronistic, with Mary disturbed at her desk while reading a book, or unrealistic in their portray of some well-to-do chatelaine, draped in her blue robes, welcoming her wingéd visitor. My mind, in search of an image, goes to Faidah.
Faidah has just given birth. She is 15 years old, about Mary’s age. There are plenty of mangers about but the baby has, according to local custom, been placed on a grass mat on the floor, not held or suckled, but placed on the floor. Her first baby died after a few days; the second was stolen by cattle raiders, re-branded with the facial scars of the raiding tribe and sold to one of those husbands suffering the twin misfortunes of a barren first wife and insufficient cow-wealth to purchase a second.
Perhaps the custom has to do with the fact that one in every seven women dies in childbirth; one in seven babies dies in the first few years of life: why get attached to something that may go away? Sickened, killed, stolen, what does it matter how. The husband stops by to see the results – then leaves, perhaps most poignantly of all, without a single gesture of affection or gratitude for her labour. It’s her job, after all. There will be no pastoral visitors, no kings from the east bearing gifts.
In this village, there are no sanitary napkins, no diapers, no toilets, no medications. Women are barely able to connect what happens monthly with the production of babies – their purpose in life. Blood is greeted with fear. Here a woman is meant to be either lactating or pregnant, with enough strength left over to tend livestock, cultivate the family plot, cook, clean, and look after the children that have managed to survive.
Here in Lankein, outside of urban centres, the economy is not currency-based and so the fact that more than 90% of the population lives on less than half-dollar a day is mostly meaningless. The only currency that matters is cattle. Children wear the rags inherited from older siblings; school is not an option in vast reaches of this country where the literacy rate is the second lowest in the world. Imperial bombardment keeps people on the move despite the six year-old pax. Yes, this feels closer to Mary’s world; the one interrupted.
Back in the city, we venture onto the treacherous terrain of gender. In a fishbowl tête-à-tête, women and men sit in concentric circles, women on the inside and men on the outside, the latter, attentively, eavesdropping on a conversation to which otherwise they are unlikely to ever expect an invitation.
‘What’s a ‘good woman’ here in South Sudan?’ The circle releases a collective sigh as responses to the question are considered. A good woman respects men. A good woman looks after the house and the children. A good woman goes to the market and prepares the food, cooks, cleans up. A good woman has lots of babies. A good woman looks after her husband’s needs and stays quiet. ‘No’ is not an option. A good woman brings a big bride price.
‘Anything wrong with this picture; it’s all okay with you?’ comes the next question. The response is explosive: ‘We’re trapped!’ ‘I’m allowed no feelings, no opinion; just have babies, cook, clean, tend the cows, fetch, hoe, grind, knead, while the men lolly-gag about trying to look important.’ ‘I’m supposed to welcome the next wife, accept a beating as if it were a bouquet. He beats me; he must love me!’ ‘If there were no women around, they’d starve. Why are men so helpless?’ ‘Bought with cattle, sold with cattle – I am no slave, owned by no one! I will not be bought and sold!’
Changing places, the men, now chagrinned, discomfitted, confirm at least part of what has been said by the women. A ‘good man’ has a quiet and obedient wife who produces lots of children. A good man greets everyone in the morning. He is the religious one who goes to mosque and is respected. A good man marries more than one wife in order to expand the family. A good man knows what to do when thieves come. He shoots and defends his cows; he doesn’t tremble like a woman. He is a warrior.
Later, in same-gender triads, the men express their astonishment with the women’s discontent. One man says, Polygamy is good and a woman should adjust. This is our culture, says another. The Bible says. The Qur’an requires. If I were to do the dishes, both men and women would laugh at me, call me a woman. If a man marries a woman who is not doing her work and complaining, he can look for another woman to comfort him. One gets up from his chair and struts into the middle of the circle: ‘Where is the African woman? There was no African woman in this room to defend our culture!’ He takes his seat, seemingly oblivious to the wave of quiet outrage that has swept the room.
Cattle-rustling is at the heart of our violent culture, a South Sudanese man muses over dinner that night. It’s everything. Your daughters bring cows and husbands and children into the family. More highly valued sons, however, require cows if they are to marry. What if you don’t have the cows? You raid the neighbouring tribe. But because they stole cows from you once and your father stole cows from their father and their grandfather stole cows… revenge turns into an endless cycle of blood-letting.
Children are kidnapped to tend the cows just rustled, conscripted as tiny soldiers in their elders’ cattle wars; women are raped or killed. Cows are everything: status, wealth and, most importantly, the currency used in the marketing and bartering of females, bearers of shame, by their fathers, brothers and clan chiefs, bearers of honour. To such as Faidah, an angel came.