Saturday, February 1, 2014

protoplasm


Photo by Brett Innes
(a good friend and filmmaker from South Africa)


You can call me Christine, that is my English name. 

I have had two generations of  white people call me Christine and they think they know me.  In some ways, they do – they know the woman whose fat is gone but whose brain is still active.  I’m the one  who is not afraid to speak Dinka, Arabic and English in this place.  I am the ghost that still lives, the one that saw all the living and dying in Narus, the Red Cross refugee settlement in South Sudan.

I know language and that’s why I’m still alive.  Otherwise I would be sleeping under the hard ground with all of them – the ones who had all of their life drain from them during the time of the war.

My father, a man they called Abraham, never had a son.  He had one wife and three daughters who he hid from the Janjaweed here.  I was the eldest daughter and so he spoke to me.

“Don’t let them steal from you,” he told me before he left to go fight in the dubious war that no one ever returned from.  He looked into my eyes and spoke seriously.  “Don’t let Mother trust anyone.  Don’t allow her to drink the dark syrup.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Learn all you can while you are here.  Make sure you practice the English here.”

“Yes, Father.”

With that, my father turned around and started walking away from  the camp with no fences.  There were thousands of people there, most of them clinging to life.  The ones who were the worst were dying in the tents that the Red Cross had set up. 

Those of us who were alive watched the tanks. 

The tanks were large black containers of water that were covered.  On most days they would be replenished with more water, escorted in by a team of militia with AK-47’s.  The men were dressed in camouflage, their skin as black as mine, but they carried a severe, jagged authority with them.  We all knew not to address them.  I watched their commander, ordering the other soldiers around in Dinka, our language. 

“Don’t spill one drop!” the Major shouted as they hoisted the hose that filled up the black tank into place.  While slivers of water, the smallest amounts, dripped from the hose, some women and children rushed to the water truck to hold out their hands with scowling faces, braving the loud noise of the pump for a few drops on their palm. 

“GET BACK!” the Major screamed at them, hitting one woman with the butt of his AK.  She fell to the ground and a few people dragged her body away.  Just as the major turned his attention to shout at her and the people carrying her off, others moved forward to hold out their hands for drops of water. 

That’s the memory I have of the water:  It was worth risking our lives for. 

In a week’s time there, I could see why.  Water would keep us from contracting the terrible sickness.  People in camp were all dying of one thing and the children died the fastest.  The sickness came out of people in a syrupy black fluid. 

Some who were dying were so crazed with thirst that they even attempted drinking the fluid coming out of people.  As much as the Red Cross Volunteers warned the crowds not to do it, people could be seen doing the unthinkable. 

“Father warned me to keep you all from doing this,” I told Mother.  Her eyes looked into mine with a terrified sadness.

“Anifa,” Mother whispered to me.  For that is my real name, ‘Anifa – one who loves this life.  “I have brought you into this hell and your sisters, too.  I am dying and now you will die alongside of me.  My family will never forgive me.”

She was horrified and I tried to calm her.  I ran toward the the tents to look for a woman who was known for the way she treated our people with love – Nurse Jen.   When I found her, she was caring for a sick child, but I pleaded with her to come back with me, half in motion, half with my broken English.   

Nurse Jen said “Yes,” a word I grew to love. 

We arrived where my Mother was, sitting up against a fence-post, my sisters crying next to her. Nurse Jen just stayed standing.  

“Does your Mother know God?” 

I shook my head.  What Nurse Jen asked was a terrible thing to ask to a Jieng person. To us, it is like asking if you are already dead.  I didn’t have time to explain to her the wrong nature of her question. Instead, I just said no.

Nurse Jen knelt down next to me and pleaded with me this time.  “Then we must hurry.  You must tell her to believe in her heart that Jesus Christ is her savior!”  She spoke with such urgency and I translated it to Dinka without thinking.

“She says there is no time to heal you.  You must trust that a man named Jesus Christ who is coming here to heal you.  Will you do that?”

Mother’s face became calm.  For a moment, she looked like she was milking our goats at home.  “My daughter, he is already here.  Do you not see him?”

I knew Mother was leaving me and I clasped her wrist.  I wanted to stop the death, but Mother had already lost all of her fluid.  She left me while the nurse was there, waiting for her answer.

“What did she say?” Nurse Jen asked, her dirty face worn from caring for all the sick people. 

I was embarrassed and didn’t want to tell her, but I was also sick with disappointment. 

My Mother was no more.

“She say Jesus…” I was trying to piece together whatever English I had to make a sentence.  “She say he already here.”

Nurse Jen nodded.  From the look on her face I could see that she didn’t think my Mother was crazy.  She explained to me that Mother saw with her Spirit what I could not see.  In her explanation, I felt hope and comfort, mainly because I saw Mother’s face as she was dying.  Her frightened look had left and now she was gone. 

No more, as my people say.

Every day after Mother was no more,  I would take my sisters to help at the hospital tents.  The nurses all spoke English and they spoke to us as if we understood them and eventually we did. 

Each day we helped carry water that was black with blood and feces and dump it far away from the camp.  Some people chased us, but we spilled it there on the ground, as the nurses directed us to.  We eventually  were able to dispose of it in an underwater tunnel that people built next to the hospital.  It was called deech, the nurses said.  “Go put the water in the deech…”

At the hospital, I learned other words, too.  The word I remember is protoplasm.  Apparently the sickness attacked this protoplasm (the smallest part of what makes up the body) and then took over the body.  Without healthy protoplasm, the bodies of those around me were doomed. 

“Sudan has become weakened, just like the bodies of those with this dysentery,”  Dr. Whallen told the nurses one day.  They quieted him, signalling that I understood his words.  For some reason, they thought I would disagree. 

“He’s very right,” I said, quietly.  The nurses all looked shocked, but the doctor smiled. 

“Sorry, Christine,” he said, wiping his washed hands on a towel I held for him.  “I always forget you speak English.” 

On that day, I realized that I spoke English.  Before that, I didn’t think I did. 

One day, we heard good news.  The Sudanese in the South had made a good alliance and there would be more water for all of us.  People were going to bring bricks and build a proper hospital and even a school for the children. 

With this news also came sadder news.  Nurse Jen came to tell me herself. 

“I have received a request to go back to South Africa.  I must  leave you here at this camp.” 

I did not want to hear her at all, so I looked to the ground. 

“I am sorry,” she said.  I could tell she was crying, but she was white and I knew she wasn’t dying. 

 Before she said another thing I felt her hands on my neck.  I was startled and stepped back.  She was giving me a gift, a treasure to keep only for myself.  It was what the whites call a a necklace.  It is not copper rings, it is not beads.  In fact, it felt flimsy as if it didn’t belong in the Sudan.  It felt like a wispy string that a bird would drop on its way to build a nest. 

“You are very special, Christine,” she was saying as I examined the gift.  “I hope you learn even more than you have at the camp.  Even learn Arabic, if you can.  It is important to learn everything that you can.”

And with that, Nurse Jen turned around and left me there, clutching the strange gift she left hanging around my neck.

That was fourteen years ago.

My people have settled here nicely at Narus, but there will always be the issue of water.  Some of the missionaries come and think they are doing us a big favor, but they are really only drinking our water.  The ones who have made a difference are the ones who dig the wells and build the schools.  The rest carry a Gospel without feet.

Now the English call me a chonslatoh.  The Americans call me a translater.   The Dutch call me a verrtalerr.  I can hear all of them, but they seldom see me as more than the woman who can make my simple people understand their ways of doing things. 

Every day I read the Bible in English.  Not only does it help me understand the way the language works (so unlike the Dinka tongue!), but it has given me assurance of meeting the Jesus my Mother went with at the end of her life. 

I find solace there, in the words of God. 

A simple Dinka girl who was expected to die a terrible death!  God has made me more than what even my father thought I could become.  

It is the life of my people that I pray for everyday.


This is a picture taken yesterday in Narus, Sedan.
 Click here for photo credit and for an article about the drinking water for the people.