E. C. Osondu
When we were living in Fur, whenever my sister Nur and I did something Mother disliked, she would frighten us by invoking the name of the Janjaweed. If we whispered to ourselves in the dark as we lay on our mat at night—our same mat that smelled faintly of urine no matter how often it was put out in the sun to dry—her harsh whisper would carry into our room.
“Are you girls not going to sleep? You had better stop your whispering lest the Janjaweed hear you and carry you away on their horses and make you their wives.”
Nur and I would laugh quietly to ourselves in the dark and stop our whispering. Shortly Nur would startle me with her wall-shaking snores. I would prod her on the ribs with my elbow. The snores would temporarily cease and then start again, and I would prod her once more. I would prod and prod her and would not know when I fell asleep.
I recall one occasion when Nur was chasing me around the house. We were screaming and laughing and making so much noise Mother shouted at us to stop.
“Have you people forgotten that you are girls? Good girls do not run around screeching, feet pounding gidim, gidim, gidim like the hooves of Janjaweed horses. Both of you had better go and sit down quietly in some corner before I marry you off to some Janjaweed so you can spend all your lives brewing tea.”
Nur turned to me and said, “I do not mind brewing tea. It sounds much easier compared to gathering firewood and all the grinding and pounding of sorghum and corn on mortar and the unending trips to the water well that we have to do every day.”
“God forbid,” I said. “How can you say that, or don’t you know that the Janjaweed are djinns riding on horses, and if they pick you as their wife, any day you do not brew their tea fast enough they will pluck out your heart and eat it like wicked djinns are wont to do?”
“You have never seen a Janjaweed with your two eyes—or have you?”
“No, but that is because they are spirits, and spirits are invisible. The day you see one you will suddenly grow giant goose bumps, catch cold, and begin to shiver. Your teeth will star to chatter and then you die and become a spirit yourself.”
“God forbid,” Nur said to me, her voice quivering. I thought I saw little goose bumps on her dark skin and realized that I may have frightened her. I held her hand as we both walked into the house.
We met Father sitting with his head in his hands. When he raised his head, the whites of his eyes looked as if they were covered with a thin film of blood. He looked tired, and his dark face looked even darker. Mum gestured to us with her eyes to go to our room. We ran into our room quickly, crouched behind the door, listened, and tried to hold our breaths at the same time so they would not hear us breathing fast. Father’s voice sounded painful like a sore.
“Their cattle trampled our crops . . . we thought it was a mistake but they said . . . they called us slaves, sons of dogs It is the same news from different districts ” Shouk, Krindid, he hissed, and was quiet.
The night they came I thought I was having one of my malaria dreams. In my malaria dreams, as Mum called them, I was always either being pursued by someone or something. Sometimes it was a man with a machete, or a big, black animal with two heads, or a big, fiery-eyed, dark dog snapping at my heels. Usually at the point in the dream in which the machete was about to cut my head off or the animal with two heads was about to bite off both legs, one in each mouth, or when I felt the dog’s hot, fetid breath behind my legs, I would rub my eyes and wake up. Mum would be standing in front of me holding a lantern and looking worried and scared, telling me in a kind voice to go back to sleep. This night was different, though. There was fire and pounding of hooves and what appeared to be floating fire and screaming. Mum swept Nur and me into her arms and Father screamed for us to run behind the house and hide. From the side of my eyes I glimpsed the Janjaweed for the first time. So they were real? They actually had horses, and their horses emitted fire through every pore. The Janjaweeds’ eyes were the color of fire, and balls of fire flew out of the guns they carried. Everywhere they pointed caught fire. Our faces, our houses turned the color of fire. Father stood in front of the house. I looked at him and saw that he was no longer black; he, too, had become the color of fire. The evil ones were cursing and laughing and speaking in fast Arabic. I could hear the words they spoke: “Throw the dark-skinned slaves in the fire; let the fire lighten their skins; they are no better than firewood.”
Mother grabbed us and we began to run. We were joined by others who were screaming and running. Behind us was Abok’s father, who was carrying the family’s lone black sheep on his shoulder as he struggled to balance Abok on the same shoulder. I saw him stumble and fall. This would have made me laugh, but I could not laugh. We kept running, and the fire behind us grew smaller and smaller till we saw it no more.
Our tents at the Zagrawa Refugee Camp looked like the humps of thousands of ocher camels crouching in the sand. We all liked to call them tents, but they were not real tents. Some were merely old rags tied together; others were made of old plastic bags, while a lucky few had real tents constructed with tarpaulin. Children from whose tents smoke rose were jumping around and playing, the smoke an assurance that they would soon have something to eat. Tents like ours from which no smoke rose filled with the sullen faces of those of us waiting for our mothers to come back from where they had gone to look for firewood. Here in this camp, we were always waiting for something. We waited for Mother to come back from where she had gone to look for firewood; we waited for the meal to be cooked when we had food, but when we didn’t, we waited for the trucks to bring food, then waited for the food to be distributed. When the wells were dry, we waited for the water tankers to bring water. Nur and I would always watch the road for dust rising into the air, our sign to get our buckets and water basins and go form a line and wait. Sometimes we were lucky to be among the early ones in the line, because after the first few people, the lines would scatter and the fighting would begin. I was happy that the wells had dried up, though, even though I never told Mum this. Each time I looked into the well while fetching water, I would usually see Father’s head floating around in it. I would close my eyes and continue to fetch the water without looking. I never told Mother; I did not want to add to her worries. Since we had come to the camp, she had thrown silence around her like a black-colored shawl. These days she smiled only with her teeth, unlike in the past when her smile rose from her heart and I could see the three wrinkles on each corner of her eyes.
When there was still water in the well, fighting went on all day as boys and girls struggled to grab the long rope and tie it to their buckets. More water was spilled in the fight over the rope than was fetched. The strong boys helped the girls they admired to fetch water. I remember that it was while standing by the well watching the fights that I first saw Deng. I cannot talk about Deng now.
Mum did not frighten us with the Janjaweed anymore. She did not even want us to mention the word around her. The only time she had been her old self was when we came back from the office to our tent with clothes that were sent to the camp from America. The Red Cross people had made us wait as usual, and then we were told to walk to the bundle of clothes and pick one T-shirt each. Nur picked one with the inscription I’m Loving It; I picked one that said Tell Me I’m Sexy. It had a drawing of a girl with long hair and large breasts, who was pointing at her breasts and smiling. I was lucky to get a shirt that was my exact size and was very proud to wear it. I was hoping that Deng would see me wearing the shirt.
“Where do you think you are going to with the picture of that half-naked girl with a hump on her chest?” Mum shouted at me. Nur covered her mouth and began to laugh behind her fingers.
“Answer me, or has someone suddenly cut off your tongue? Or you think because your father is not here you now have the license to dress like a wayward girl? You better remove that flimsy piece of cloth and return it to wherever you got it from,” she said. She walked into the inner tent where she began to blow on the firewood, her eyes quickly filling with tears, whether from the wood smoke or from her shouting at me I could not really tell.
Nur was still laughing. I turned to her and whispered that I was going to tell Mum that the inscription on her T-shirt said something bad.
“What does it say? How can you say it is saying something bad? Or is it because you love the girl with the hump on her chest?”
“Yours says I’m Loving It. What exactly are you loving? You are loving being with boys, eh?”
Mother’s voice called out to us to come to help with the cooking, and we went inside the tent and began to help remove sand and dry leaves from the flour that Mum was using to prepare our evening meal.
That night the moon came out, and all over the camp there was a certain gaiety, just as if we were still in the village. In the adjoining tent, the men sat around listening to the radio. They drew closer to the radio as the crisp, clear voice of the announcer mentioned Darfur. He pronounced it Da-Four, and this made some of the men laugh. Mum was feeling happy, too, and she began to tell us a story.
“It was on a moonlight night like this that your father proved that he was worthy to marry me. He took more lashes than all the young men who came to ask for my hand in marriage and took the lashes without uttering a sound. In those days, before it was banned by the government in Khartoum as barbaric and a form of idol worship, it was the custom of our people that if two young men were interested in marrying a particular girl, they had to prove they were strong enough by going through an endurance test. My father told the young men that they had to prove that they could protect his precious daughter and were strong enough to protect their cattle from wild animals. There was another boy who was asking for my hand as well as your father. They both stepped out that moonlit night, their bodies covered in ashes and wearing nothing but underpants. One of the strongest men in the village was holding a long, camel-hide whip, flexing it from side to side and driving fear into the hearts of the young men. Your father was fearless and was smiling, his white teeth glowing in the moonlight. The drums began to pound and the other young man—I recall now that his name was Dau—stepped forward, and the man with the whip struck out suddenly on his back. The whip curled around him like a serpent, and the young man flinched. The drums pounded even harder and the whip continued to descend. It was at the tenth stroke of the whip that Dau cried out and raised both hands in the air. The whipping stopped. He was not allowed to cry out, and his crying out meant it was over for him.
“Your father stepped forward and the whipping started. He neither flinched nor cried out but still had the smile on his face. Even on the twenty-fourth stroke, when his back was a mass of huge welts, the smile was still on his face. The whipping stopped and your father was officially declared my husband because he had proved himself capable of protecting me. The other young man, Dau, fled the village shortly after that. He could not bear the shame, and no woman would have agreed to marry him after his disgrace. He left for the big city and later became a rich trader.”
When Mother finished her story, there were tears in her eyes, and Nur and I, who would ordinarilyaugh at every story, had tears in our eyes too. We went to bed thinking of our father. This was why we were more than surprised at what happened next.
Mother called Nur and me and told us to go with a few people outside the camp to search for firewood. This was a task that Mum herself was usually worried about doing. The Janjaweed patrolled the perimeter fence that surrounded the camp and often would catch girls and ride away with them on their camels into the bush and do bad things to them. Whenever Mother had to go for firewood, she would usually go with a couple of other women and a few males for protection. We were excited about leaving the camp and went with the group in search of firewood. We were not so lucky, as the wood in the area around the camp was almost all gone. We could have gone farther, but others in the group said some men on camelback had been seen riding into the bush, so we returned to camp. On our way back, Nur pulled me by my dress and began to whisper about Mum.
“Do you know why Mum sent us out of the camp? It is because she was expecting a very important visitor and she did not want us to see him. I suspect he is very ugly.”
“A visitor? Who is this visitor, or has she found a husband for you at last?”
“I think she has found a husband for herself,” Nur said, and covered her mouth as she laughed.
“I think she wants to wash her clothes,” I said.
“If she wanted to wash her clothes, she would have told us to stay somewhere around the camp. She need not have sent us far away.”
Whenever our Mum wanted to wash her only flowing, multicolored gown, she would tell Nur and me to go outside to play out of modesty. She would wash the cloth and sit naked indoors waiting for it to dry.
As we entered our tent, I smelled the strong scent of the dark green perfumed oil—Bint el Sudan. The smell filled the whole of our tent. It came from a fat man with folds all over his body. Every inch of him seemed to be folded in parts: his face, his arms, his cheeks. He had facial hair and a single gold tooth. He spread out his arms as Nur and I entered, and even his palms were creased and folded in many places.
“Welcome back, children. You came back so quickly and with so little wood, greet Hajj and do I need to tell you to do that? Greet like good children and thank Hajj for all the good things he has brought for us,” Mum said, pointing at a rich-looking bundle lying in the tent. Nur looked at me and I looked at her. If Hajj had not been looking at us so intently through the folds of his apparently delighted eyes, we would have burst into laughter. Mum’s new bride manner was hilarious. Nur and I knelt to greet Hajj, but he drew us up toward himself.
“No, no, do not kneel to greet me. The Prophet forbids it. You must never kneel in greeting before anybody from today onwards.”
As he drew me toward him, I felt the folds of his plump-looking fingers graze my buttocks through my thin dress, and I flinched. I looked at Nur, but his other hand was at that very moment accidentally touching her left breast. Mum was looking down on the floor and smiling.
Hajj soon rose from his position. In rising he reminded me of an old camel, as different parts of his body heaved and seemed to jiggle.
“El Hajj, thank you for honoring our modest dwellings with your esteemed presence.”
“You need not thank me at all, and you need not worry yourself further. I will take you people out of here soon,” he said, his hand sweeping through the tent.
El Hajj was a big trader in the town. He already had four wives and many children. One of the gun-carrying men on horseback who rode round the camp had told him about Mother, and he had decided to take her on as something between wife and concubine. He would take us out of the camp, and we could live in a real house once more. Mum, who told us this, was ecstatic and seemed to be out of breath as she told us even more wonderful things about El Hajj. He was indeed a very holy man and had performed the pilgrimage not just once, but four times. The sand that was used to lay the foundation of his house was from the holy land of Mecca. He fasted once every week, unlike many others who waited until the holy month. Beggars from all over the town came to his gates to be fed every day. In short, Hajj was a saint in huge folds of human flesh.
We moved out of the camp to El Hajj’s house. Mum was not exactly his wife, and we did not live in the main house but in a small block of two rooms that was perhaps originally built for his servants.
One night a few days later, El Hajj called me to his bedroom. The room was filled with milk-colored curtains. The bed was high and had a pole on each of the four corners. He was wearing his djellabia and was sitting on the edge of his bed. He was smiling as he drew me toward his huge belly. I was looking at his soft, white palms and the folds around his neck. As the soft fingers began to poke around me, they no longer felt soft. I felt like someone was poking sharp bicycle spokes into me. Everywhere he touched stung, and I began to cry.
The next day Hajj called Nur to his room, and when she came back her eyes were red.
“Did he do anything to you?” I asked Nur.
“You tell me first. Did he do anything to you?” Nur asked me.
“Should we tell Mum?” Nur asked me, though I had not answered her first question.
“I think we should go back to the camp,” I said.
“Mum says he is a kind and religious man and that he is only helping us to become better Muslims.”
“She is like a new bride. She no longer knows what she is doing. I think we should return to the camp,” Nur said, agreeing with me.
That night as soon as it got dark, we began heading back to the camp.
When we walked into the camp, a loud ululation went up. “They have come back. They would rather be thin and free than fat but in bondage,” the women sang. The elders began shouting prayers and thanking us for bringing honor to the tribe. Food in trays appeared from different tents and there was dancing and singing as the moon shone on Zagrawa Camp.
Nur looked at me as we ate, and I looked at her. We should be happy, but we were not. Father would have been so proud of us, but what about Mum? All around us men, women, and children ate and danced.
A few days later Mum came to the camp to see us. First she stood by the entrance to the camp and sent for someone to call us. People in the camp began to whisper.
“So she is now too big and important to step foot in the camp, eh?”
“Why would she not feel important? Look at all that fine jewelry around her neck.”
“She should remember that she once lived here and was no better than the rest of us.”
“Better to live in the poverty of this camp with my dignity intact than to be a kept woman.”
The wind must have blown some of their whisperings into Mum’s ears because she began to walk into the camp as we were running out to meet her. She held us and we hugged. She was crying and wiping the corners of both eyes with her shawl.
“My children, you both left me alone—your own mother that carried both of you for nine months. How could you do such a thing? I spoke with El Hajj. He said it was a misunderstanding. He only wished to draw both of you closer to him, but you misinterpreted his fatherly gesture.”
We looked at each other and stared at the dusty earth.
“He is ready to make amends. He says he will give you both some time to grow closer to him.”
Once again we stared at the ground.
“I saw your father in a dream.”
That got our attention. We both drew closer to her.
“Your father was unhappy in the dream. He turned his face away all the while that he spoke to me. He said the only way I would ever see his face again was if I brought you all back and we all lived under the same roof. I promised him I would. You know I can’t break a promise made to a departed. If I do, I, too, will die.”
We both gasped. We went back to the camp and picked up our few items and returned to El Hajj’s house with Mum. As we entered El Hajjs’s compound, he waved at us from a distance. He had a big smile on his face.
“I told your mother that you are good children. It was a misunderstanding. This is your new home. You will both be very happy here just like your mother.”
We both shivered, giant goose bumps on our skin, and walked into the house.