Killed in battle, Deng Manuon left behind his wife to care for four little girls and a boy. Elizabeth Akuol is the oldest. When her mother died of illness when Akuol was about ten, all five children went to live with their mother’s younger sister, Rachel Achol Rial. Akuol is now 12 years old and in class four.
When we arrived, the guardian was not there. A neighbor went to fetch her, and the children gathered plastic chairs from the neighbor’s home which they set up in two rows, facing each other, as is common here when visitors arrive.
Just as Adau’s face had mirrored her aunt’s, I recognized Rachel Achol as she approached. Akuol shares her aunt’s twinkly eyes and a lower jaw that juts forward a bit too far for proper teeth alignment but allows for an attractive smile. As the children were introduced, I learned that Rachel Achol now has a toddler and a week-old infant of her own.
When I asked how she felt about having Akuol in the ASAH School and whether it presented difficulties to care for seven children under age 14, she told me she was happy that Akuol is in the school, and that she herself is still young and can manage the work. Like all the guardians, she hopes an educated Akuol will one day help the family.
When I visited Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya in 2007 to make our documentary, I was invited inside a couple of Sudanese tukuls. They were neat as pins, their dirt floors solid. Luggage doubling as dressers were stacked by size, the largest on the bottom. Mahogany chairs and couches with upholstered foam cushions decorated with embroidered doilies made for formal seating. To have a tukul this nice means they have family – Lost Boys in the US – who are sending funds to help them.
At the ASAH compound, I sleep in our matron’s tukul, and Daruka retreats to one of the tents. Jean Wood prefers sleeping in a tent because the tukuls are dark, and the air is close.
My borrowed tukul is a palace in comparison to most in this community. I have an iron sheet door and a handmade curtain hung on a string across the doorway. Though the tukuls can be comfortable, there are only two small screened windows and the door, so there is little air movement. My walls and ceiling are covered with fabric to cut down on the dust, though it doesn’t keep out all the spiders, bugs and bats, and we need to remove the fabric to clean off the termite detritus and treat the wood with anti-termite to give it a longer life. The termites don’t bother me as such, but they devour the tukuls over time, and without the fabric coverings, dirt and dust would fall from the ceilings on us as we sleep. Best of all, we have power in the evenings when we run the generator. Lights in the tukuls, the shower and toilets at the gate and in the yard. In my tukul, I plug in my computer, my iPad, and my video and camera batteries. The trappings.
Every evening, the bats swoop in and out, decimating the bug population until I close the curtain. I sleep on a medium-size mahogany bed with a foam mattress – not the best one, not the worst. It’s hot this time of year, so even a top sheet is unnecessary until the early morning hours when it cools. And though the rainy season is over, I drape my bed with a mosquito net because I’m a bug magnet and every bite I get swells and reddens and blisters. My legs are unsightly, to say the least.
But we are visiting Akuol. And here I had my first opportunity to go inside the home of one of our girls. There are two round tukuls in their yard. None more than 12′ in diameter, and that may be generous. One is for cooking, and the other is for sleeping. This is where the week-old-baby was sleeping, and Akuol took me inside. The room, lit only by the shaft of sunlight that came through the doorway, was dominated by a thin foam mattress enveloped by a blanket that draped over a rope like a tent. Akuol lifted the blanket edge to show off her tiny baby cousin, sleeping soundly.
No families in the village have electricity, so that is no surprise. In this tukul, other than the mattress, there was no furniture, they had no fabric on the walls, no mosquito nets. I don’t think most families have access to the dangerously poisonous anti-termite solution to prolong the life of their tukuls, and even if they did, it could pose a health hazard if they didn’t use it correctly. A backup, some mosquito netting, a bag of sorghum, a purse, and a colorful shopping bag hung the ceiling poles. Two small battered suitcases were stacked on a plastic stool. Next to that stood a can of powdered milk topped by a kettle, a dark blue metal box marked “UNICEF” and draped over a rope across all of this were shirts and dresses and jackets and other clothing, dusty. The whole lot of it looked abandoned, things a second-hand store in the US would discard. In the shadow of the Unicef box, a chicken roosted.
I asked Akuol where she and the five other children slept. She pulled out a woven straw mat, once-colorful, now faded, and unrolled it. It was perhaps two feet wide. Auntie Rachel, her new baby, and her toddler slept on the mattress under the stuffy blanket. The other five children huddled together on the unpadded mat. Next to the chicken.
- Spoiled (asahinsudan.wordpress.com)