I ate my first raw peanut a few months before we left for Sudan. I was taken aback by its beany-ness. It is a bean, not a nut. I had known that, been told, “It’s a part of the legume family.” But in my mouth for that first time, it was transformed. Peanut. Pea-bean. The changing of being, transmutation, transubstantiation; the bean that had always existed showed itself to me. We were told to take something to Sudan to remind us of home, told over and again how hard it was to find “good peanut butter in Africa.” As if Africa is a store, shelves stocked with elephants and zebras, many aisles of drums but few of good peanut butter. We unpacked five kilos of less importance and refilled the space with five kilos of Skippy. We flew across the world, Toronto to Philly to London to Nairobi. Nairobi to Juba, we were served peanuts in tiny packages. Juba to Rumbek, we landed, touched down onto dry ground. Walked out into dry heat and learned that this dusty land is land that grows peanuts, hundreds of thousands of peanuts.
In 2007 I married, I stood in a blue-grey hospital room while my grandmother died, and I saw an infant breathe while she joined the world of outside-the-womb. In 2009 I moved to Sudan. In 2012 I will go back home, assuming that home will in some way still exist apart from this place. Time masquerades as linear. We are trained, socialized, tranquilized to see it only moving forwards. This happens, then this. This happened, then this. Our language joins the collusion of linearity; as if when we finally married we weren’t also at the end, looking through our lives together and apart. As if, in that holy moment of death when we stood together around my grandmother’s bed, I wasn’t also here in South Sudan holding another soul, a child of three days, umbilical cord black and drying, the last physical connection to the shelter of his mother’s body. Time wraps around us, a blanket, a prayer shawl, each loop a moment, a memory. Each row binding us, warming us.
Accident of birth, the Dinka girl was born between Sudan’s civil wars. She was in her late twenties before she heard that she was created in the image of God. In a society where cattle are above women, she learned she was as human as her brothers. She was sold to her husband for many cows; she is beautiful, tall, dark. Her husband paid for her body, and the body of several other wives, but he could not buy her spirit. She swore to allow her daughters the chance to live; we all swear we will be different from our parents.
I am learning transience here: transience between life and death, spirits, ancestors, and time. I am learning transience of belief, of understanding. We came like many other WASP Canadians. To prove to ourselves we could be better people, to try to wash the colonial blood from our own hands. We came to learn, to serve, to grow, to share, to stop caring only when the tragedy pushed its way, for a few moments, into our headlines, to be open to pain and learning. Sudan now synonymous with human suffering, we came to re-humanize, to become human ourselves.
When I was a child, my friend and I played in our attic, our secret clubhouse with codenames and passwords. In the damp, dark room, we decided, “When I grow up, I wanna be a missionary in Africa.” Words long forgotten until I get to the space on the entry visa marked “occupation.”
“Just write ‘missionary’, it brings up fewer questions than volunteer.”
But “missionary” makes me cringe. I can smell that attic; smell my movement from that little girl who was, to this woman who is. If anything, I came to be saved, not to save. But really, here—in this place, in this heat, in the shadow of a war that was and the whispers of what might be—I’m not sure any of us are safe.
She left her husband, the man who bought her body, who tried to claim her soul. He would come only to impregnate her. He would not bring money or food. She, full of the new knowledge of her own value, left him. He came back one night while she was asleep with her small children in their thatchroofed, mud-walled home, and he lit a fire. The roof went up in flames; fire in the eyes of a man who could not allow his wife to assert humanity, to disallow him her body.
These days I am biking into work. There is an ideal time, about a day and a half after the rain, when the road is fine for cycling. Too soon after the rain, and the road is mud, and I pedal through a swamp of mud-creatures who cling to my tires and will me to fall. Too long after a rain, and the road is sand, shifting and unstable, laughing at my slowly moving, sliding, unsteady 58 Room | VOL. 36.2 wheels. Regardless of sand or mud, every morning, throngs of children run to greet us with shouts and waves.
“Hello, hello, helloooooo!”
“Khawaja, khawaja, khawaja!”
I have never been so conspicuous.
Catch me on the right day, and I will wave and smile. Parading along, I enjoy the children and their shouts, their dirty clothes and enormous smiles, their waving hands reaching out and frozen in space and time. They weren’t told that where I am from we move our hands to wave. On certain days I feel like I am being greeted by a tiny army of Vulcans: arms outstretched, fingers splayed.
More often I feel as if I am on trial. On trial for my skin, for what I own, for the power and privilege that was poured out on me the moment I first breathed, for being born where and when and to whom I was. It makes me uncomfortable, this cascade of “hellos,” these children chasing my bicycle. I want to go to work unnoticed, or at least un-shouted-at. Sometimes it makes me angry. But I share melanin with others who came before. Who made themselves conspicuous through their “civilization,” who changed lives, generations. Some days, these shouting children are my penance.
She escaped the fire: escaped with her children. We who hear her story learn that love can be stronger than fire. Refining fires, phoenix fires, we can come out stronger and newer.
Accident of birth, I was born in small-town Ontario. I lived in that smalltown way until I was seven. We were walking around the town, “going for a walk” the way our mothers did. Talking like adults, dissecting our sevenyear-old worlds. I told my friend my parents were getting divorced. My mother was moving to the city. My friend told me that I was wrong. No one in our town got divorced. I must be wrong. I remember being speechless. She was right after all—no one in our town got divorced. My mother moved to the city, became No One in our community, unspoken of in our church. But I learned early on that No One can still make big mistakes, No One can still be very wrong.
I heard that every time we access our memories we alter them slightly; that our purest memories are the ones we don’t think about. In remembering our lives, we rewrite them, relive them. I am rewriting my memories, attaching and detaching significance. I am collapsing then upon now. I am recreating my story and our story. My story of you is altered by thinking of you; by remembering you, I change you. I am redesigning me and you and us and we.
My mother and her lover moved to the city. We went back and forth, between parents and lives. I understood the least. I understood that part time I would live in an apartment, and an apartment is like a hotel. At church my sisters and I were prayed over for “generational sin” because, to some, loving is categorical; my mother’s love was sin-love while other love is virtue-love.
Fire is strong: refining fire, phoenix fire. Culture is strong: creation culture, destruction culture. The Dinka woman didn’t save her eldest. Her eldest daughter was married as a child. Married to a man who bought her body, who drank his emotions and his experience of war, a man who hit her. Married to a man who one day took her to the river and told her he was going to kill her and their child. Told her to throw their infant into the river first and then he would shoot her; told her to wait while he looked for his gun.
I remember getting off the school bus. Children pouring out, sand through the hourglass of our child-lives, and my sister turned to me with Big Sister Authority. “If anyone ever calls you gay, or calls Mom gay, you just tell them that gay means happy and that they’re stupid.”
We are bipedal black holes, absorbing, consuming. I am nothing without that which I have absorbed from you. I caress the Bantu philosophy Ubuntu; I am because we are. I claim it, another rock-gem mined for my possession from the richness of Africa. I hold this rock in my palms; my oils affecting, changing, and creating a different-ness. We are formed and molded in the hands of each other.
I was twelve years old when my mother’s partner died, and no one at our church talked about it. Someone told me not to be sad because there was no use. “She’s in hell anyway.” Someone’s equivalent to not crying over spilled milk, I suppose. I learned about difference by chance, by being born to a woman who chose to be true to herself; to love whom she loved.
Accident of birth, she was born to a Dinka woman whose mother saw light, saw herself as valuable. Who rescued herself but couldn’t protect her daughter. She was born to a woman who, when left at the river, held tightly to the infant in her arms and ran. Ran, and ran, and ran. Away from the drunk man who bought her who was looking for his gun.
And now, I am living my grandmother’s life. I am cutting my tomatoes slowly, smoothing some seeds to the side. I will plant them. I am cutting the clothes that are past wearing into careful triangles, an eye towards the rag quilt that will come. I am growing sprouts, growing yogurt, growing myself. Again time collides, collapses; I am conversing with a grandmother I never knew. Twenty-six and quilting, kneading the dough for bread. I had to come to Sudan to find her, to feel her strength in my arms as I press slowly, firmly, massaging the future into that dough. Twenty-six and sitting, watching the sun set, sun golden on her hair, reflected in her eyes. Together we are here, and we are at her blue-grey bedside, machines and family now motionless, we are watching ourselves watch over ourselves. Time wraps around us: a blanket, a prayer shawl. And we sit.
Kaitlyn Nafziger recently returned from living and volunteering for two and a half years in South Sudan. Her writing has appeared in The Common Place and Dreamseekers. She works for a non-profit organization and writes when moments of inspiration and/or dedication are found. She lives with her husband in Kitchener, Ontario.