Really, this has been the most amazing journey. It is not about enjoying the lap of luxury; it’s a journey of discovery, a wild ride into the unknown, a meeting and connecting with people so different to me. I come with a non-judgmental attitude to observe and appreciate the wonderful and diverse people that the Lord has created and to declare to them the truth that our God sent his son Jesus that all men might have life and have it in abundance.

If you are too busy to read this lot in one go, hang onto it for sometime in the future. I think that I have something good to say. After this experience Africa is now permanently in my blood.

This text picks up where the last one left off — at night, right in the middle of the cattle camp near Padak:

Deng and I were given a straw mat and a blanket so we sat down to rest. People noticed us and were very interested; one by one we acquired friends. We shook hands with each one, and soon we were in the middle of a large group. Only a couple of men spoke English, but almost everyone had a question for me. So Deng did a fair bit of translation. He introduced everyone by name and related the family connection: “This young man’s was my grandfather’s second cousin” etc.

There was only one young man who attempted to intimidate me, but he only had the barest smattering of English. One advantage of being such a bizarre, unusual creature as I was to these people is that they really had no idea how to gauge me. They could not tell what I was thinking, how I was feeling or how I was being affected by them. I felt like I had a protective shield, as these people could not see through me. This was an advantage that I do not usually enjoy, so I made the most of it, and threw away my inhibitions and experimented. I expressed myself through more basic human instinctive modes that transcend language.

The ground everywhere was covered in ash and fine, soft dust. Small piles of dried cow manure was burning at regular intervals about 5-6 metres apart to provide a natural mosquito repellent in the form of an acrid yet sweet smoke. It was quite effective, but some insects did still penetrate, so I got out my personal repellent. Deng chastised me for needing such comforts but soon asked to use it himself.

Our conversation continued for the best part of an hour. Then someone arrived with a container of milk for us to drink. It was offered to me first. I remembered reading that the Dinka put cows’ urine into their milk in order to keep it fresh, so I gave it a good, suspicious sniff before I tasted it, but I found it to be as fresh as you could hope for and still very warm from the cow.

In most Dinka cattle camps, milk is the staple food and comprises around 80 per cent of their diet. I was encouraged to fill my stomach until I could not take any more. Four big cups was my limit, after which I felt full and warm and content.

Someone suggested that we try another part of the camp, so we upped and found a quiet place where we would be left to sleep. Our bed was a straw mat made of thick grass/bamboo strips that had been woven together. We were given one blanket, and Deng and I slept together, head to toe in an inner row of people. Outer rows of sleepers sleep right next to the cattle and can get stepped on or urinated right next to or even worse. In the centre, protected by two rows of people, were mothers with infants. Some had little material tents held up by sticks.

Looking up through smokeless patches, I could see a brilliant, cloudless, starry sky. The prayer singers were still engaged in their songs and dance of worship. And on top of this, three men performed a shuffling dance all around the camp singing incredible, complex, rich, deep harmonies at the capacity of their voices. I thrilled to my senses. In the whole wide world I could not think of anywhere that I would rather be. I drifted off to sleep in a peaceful, warm, ecstatic bliss.

The sounds of the cattle camp entered my dreams, keeping my mind present all night. The morning light brought the previous night’s memories flash flooding for my review against the backdrop of my closed eyes. Upon opening them, I discovered a bright new version of the world that I had just found — a brand new day.

Within 20 minutes of my standing up and taking a short video clip, the whole camp was abuzz with interest in their strange, unexpected visitors. There was a little bit too much interest in my digital camera, so I tried to use it minimally. Once they had seen familiar faces imaged on the little LCD screen, the camp dwellers all wanted to have their photo taken — especially young men who wanted to be photographed with their personality bull.

Many male Dinka names: Majok, Mading, Machar, Mangok, Malok, Malak, Majier, Mathiang, Makur, Mabior etc. have a meaning that describes the colour markings of a bull. The men compose songs that express adoration, pride and affection for their personality ox. When I photographed them with their ox, they would raise their hands in the air to mimic the shape of the horns. By cutting a young bull’s horns in certain ways, the Dinka are able to produce mature bulls with horns that are twisted in decoration. They are very proud of such bulls and will not eat or sell them.

We left the cattle camp late in the morning with a different guide. This time we stayed on the path, so we passed through multiple groups of huts and greeted scores of relatives. One household killed a goat for us to eat, then after lunch we slept for several hours in one of their huts.

The Dinka ingeniously construct furniture from unmilled timber. They use a peg and hole system whereby interconnecting pieces are whittled to just the right size then forcefully fit together, resulting in rough-looking but sturdy, functional furnishings – bed frames, chairs and tables. Bamboo segments are laid flat along the length of the bed frame to provide support for the mattress or curvaceously shaped into chair frames, some designed for upright posture and some for reclining.

Wealthier homes, such as that of our most current hosts, are able to afford thin foam mattresses and cotton sheets. These were purchased by barter from a caravan of Middle Eastern traders.

While resting in this hut, we received many visitors. One man brought with him a polyurethane sack that had probably contained rice or beans. This sack had been completely unwoven and was now no longer a sack but a big bundle of polyurethane threads. I watched in amazement as this man quickly and nimbly wove the pile of plastic threads into a thick, strong rope with a permanent loop on one end and an adjustable collar on the other. Then I realised that every animal in the camp had been wearing one of these.

We moved on in the late afternoon. News of my presence had spread like wildfire and along the way many came to greet me personally. A local chief even stopped to congratulate me on staying in the cattle camp. It seemed that they believed that white people are unable to do such things. They were very impressed and appreciative of my interest in them and thought me valiant and courageous for making such a journey. Our timing was excellent, and we reached the road construction workers as they were finishing for the day. Several vehicles refused to pick us up, but one big water tanker crammed us into the cab.

Deng seemed to think that Patrick was angry with us, so we approached the local Dinka chiefs to seek advice on finding lodgings. It is a shame in Dinka culture to ask for food or to say that you are hungry; you must wait patiently and maybe it will be offered to you. We were accepted into the Care International compound for one night only and no food was provided as the place was closed for annual leave.

At some stage during the next day I wandered back into the UN compound to ask Patrick if his accommodation offer was still open. The price rose to US$25 and then to US$60 per night. I said I could afford $10 and he accepted. From then on, Patrick was most hospitable, friendly and informative. I ate mostly with the senior staff. The food was superb restaurant-quality as they employed chefs from the finest culinary schools in Kenya and imported fresh ingredients regularly as well as purchasing local cattle, goats and poultry.

Deng was running out of money as he had given most of it away. I offered to pay for his place in the UN compound, but he felt that he was not welcomed by the staff who were all Kenyans — mostly Luo people and all men. Also, he had found lodgings with a relative where he was provided with one meal a day. It was not sufficient for him and he was suffering from hunger, but he wanted to be able to endure like his “brothers”.

Patrick offered us both a place on a UN chartered plane back to Lokichoggio free of charge! That meant we would have one week in Padak. I am not sure what his motives were, but I was overjoyed. This was the best possible outcome for me having already rejected one free flight in favour of staying longer and seeing the cattle camp.

I had made friends with a young man by the name of Thongboro and on Sunday when he had the day off work, we planned to walk to the River Nile. The kitchen staff made us a packed lunch, and Martin, who was head of catering, decided to come along. I had not seen much of Deng in the last couple of days, but he turned up as we were walking out the front gate and he came along too.

As the four of us walked, we discussed the history and future of the Southern Sudan and the Dinka people in particular. I found out that Deng had been a child soldier and that he had marched from this very place all the way to Ethiopia with about 4000 other boys. There were at that time roughly 50 000 child soldiers in action. Today they are known as “the Lost Boys”.

Deng briefed us on the correct landmine procedure. If we were to set foot on one, we must first freeze dead-still as the mechanism will click down but not activate until the pressure is released. Once motionless, it is of paramount importance to warn everyone else and to clear the area. Then you lean forward as far as you can before throwing yourself away toward the ground. If you follow these instructions, you will probably only lose one foot. We met a man along the way with only one leg, and I assumed that he was a landmine victim. But we found out that instead a tank had shot off his leg.

Our little group passed through many small villages, greeting people asking directions and sharing stories. We heard many wartime accounts. Most villages were armed and it was very common to see men holding semi-automatic rifles.

As I have said, the River Nile was in flood, so at various points we had to wade through waist-deep water. I was concerned about crocodiles, but the locals that we questioned had not seen any in these parts.

We waded along a labyrinth of trails that passed through lush green forests. Varieties of plants and trees that I had never seen before were home to exotic, brightly-coloured birds that danced and sang as the gentle breeze rustled leaves and made the tree bows creak and groan. Large fish leapt up out if the water; their slaps upon re-entry sent ripples through the rich, black water.

Thongboro proved to be an excellent guide. He waded in front, gently alerting us to submerged obstacles. About three and a half hours into our journey, Deng and Martin began to tire and wanted to return, but Thongboro was resolute, and I was right behind him. After one more hour we came upon semi-aquatic villages — huts built literally in the middle of the water. Small islands of dry earth were protected from the rising waters only by small mud walls that were built by hand. The surrounding vegetation was lush and beautiful, but the mosquitoes were pretty bad.

The inhabitants of these villages were all young – teenagers and young families. They had been placed in this remote area by their communities to receive and transport dried fish and other foods that arrived by dugout canoe from islands and even more remote lands that exist within the extensive greater Nile waterways.

We rode in a dugout canoe just a small way out into the backwaters of the River Nile. It was enough to appreciate the immensity of this expansive wetland. The main canal was still several canoe hours away, and I was told it took eight hours in total to cross to the other side. I could only assume that many more additional hours of wading would be necessary before reaching dry land.

Out on the water we met a young girl (about 15yo). She was alone in a dugout canoe and was transporting a large bag of dried fish intended for trade at the village near where we had come from. After she had brought the canoe to shore, she balanced the big bag on her head and proceeded to walk/wade in the direction from which we had come, singing softly as she went. We tried to keep up with her but she demonstrated her knowledge of the local wading tracks by taking shortcuts and maintaining an impressive pace. The children of these aquatic villages attend school in Padak, so they wade in and out of town every day; many return well after dark.

Deng and I sent Martin and Thongboro back to camp and went in search of more relatives. Advice that we received along the way suggested that these people lived a long way off so we aborted the mission.

We were now placed at about five hours “footing” from the compound. It was at this point that Deng decided to prove his Dinka “superiority,“ so he strode of at his maximum pace without a backward glance. If my life depended on it, I could have kept up with him, but he was playing a silly game — one that I did not appreciate. For the first half an hour, I still caught glimpses of him in the distance, and then I was alone. My sense of direction was skewed, and I felt like I was going the wrong way, but by this stage there really was only one main track so I just continued.

I met up with a kindly, gentle Dinka man who was travelling my way. His English was about as good as my Dinka, so our conversation consisted of teaching each other new words. When our common language was extinguished we acted out descriptions of animals or common nouns like “dog” or “bicycle”. Once a meaning had been determined, then we would share our respective terms. I actually learned quite a bit and enjoyed his company.

Eventually we hit the main road, and I recognized some painted markings on a tree. Deng was waiting not far past this point, declaring victoriously that he had been waiting for ten minutes! I was suitably unimpressed. I have heard him tell his slant on this story too many times.

The wild Murle (“Mur–lay”) and Toposa tribes are active and armed in the Padak area. Only two weeks before we arrived, a woman was killed by the Murle and her children were stolen. Apparently the Murle have trouble reproducing —possibly due to diseases that they have contracted from the Khartoum Government forces that they received weapons from. In the past, the Government has intentionally inflamed local tribal animosities by arming both sides of warring factions in order to destabilise the south and reduce the population.

Our UN plane was one day late, but it did come and we flew to Lokichoggio in Kenya. We were supposed to show our passports, but Deng and I both managed to walk past the line of people and slip through undetected.

Our next goal was a village on the border of Sudan and Uganda. Travel through northeastern Uganda is unadvisable due to the activity of the Lord’s Resistance Army that is also funded by the Khartoum Government and has been involved in an 18-year independence struggle against the Ugandan Government. So the long way around through Kampala was our only realistic option.

We made it to Lodwar by evening and then caught a night bus through the desert to Kitale. The horrible road through the desert that took originally took four and a half hours dragged on for an excruciating eight and a half hours. I was in the very back row, squished between a big black mama and the window. I passed in and out of consciousness. There were so many occasions when I would wake up in mid-air, my bum a full foot from the seat! Mama had a baby girl and I did not notice the child complain once!

By dawn we were on bitumen and attempting to climb the first hill, but the bus broke down. We rolled backwards down the hill, the brakes screeching — no longer receiving pressure from the engine. Our driver was fairly skilful and found a safe place to pull off the road. Everyone disembarked, so I attempted to sleep since I had the back seat to myself. I thought that it was going to be a long day, but half an hour later they had the beast running again. It spluttered into life, sounding like it had only half an engine, and we managed no more than first gear, but we were moving.

Pulling into Kitale, Deng wasted no time in organising transport, and within minutes, we were headed for the Ugandan border. Crossing the border, just as Deng had predicted, I witnessed racism and corruption in one move. We were traveling by poda poda. When the Kenyan border guard spotted my Sudanese friend, he rushed out and pushed the bicycle to the ground. Angry and threatening, he demanded to see Deng’s papers. As planned, Deng showed only his SPLM travel document, for if a Sudanese were to show a western passport he could only expect to pay a huge bribe. I had Deng’s passport on me, and Deng had only to part with KS 800 (A$13) in order to pacify the guard.

We were hoping to rest up before continuing on to Kampala but found no hotels, so we ended up in a mini van headed for the capital. We crossed over the River Nile quite close to its source – Lake Victoria. At this point it was huge and gushing, quite a contrast from the sleepy wetlands I had waded through in Sudan.

After 35 hours of continuous travel, we collapsed exhausted in our hotel beds. Sleep should have come easily to me, but I was so strung out that I stayed awake until the early hours of the morning. The next day was a glorious day of rest, so I spent my time writing emails!

The road from Kampala to Koboko has been under LRA attack, and sometimes even under their control, until quite recently. Our transit was protected by teenage boys brandishing semi-automatic weapons. One was stationed on our bus and many more were placed at various points on the side of the road. They sat waiting in little trampled down spaces that they had made in the long grass — some even perched in tree braches that overhung the road.

I’m not sure how effective they would prove to be under LRA attack, but at least the government was seen to be making an effort. That very day I had read in the morning paper a quote from a government spokesman urging civilians to arm themselves because “We [the government] can’t be expected to come running to your aid every time war breaks out.”

Koboko had plenty of local food available for me to try. Restaurants never provide menus so local knowledge is essential.

At certain times, when I grew weary of being in such a foreign culture, I would imagine that I was back in my world and I had a little magic door that I could step through to arrive right here in this strange place. How privileged I would feel to share this moment and how interesting these people would be. In reality I would very soon be back in my world with no magic door, but as I write this I am here in a little restaurant, in Koboko, a small town in Northern Uganda. Local workers were enjoying an evening meal. A hearty meal costs just 80 Australian cents; it’s throwaway change for me, but these people labour hard
for this.

I am a tourist. To me, African rural life is interesting and strange, but for the Africans this is the real thing — part of a daily struggle to maintain life and human dignity. When I get tired or bored, I’ll catch a plane and fly back to a spacious four-bedroom home, with two cars and a large backyard. I’ve got a job waiting for me, and money in the bank. My fridge and freezer is packed full of delights that these people can only dream of.

Right in the middle of this exact reverie, a man across the room caught my eye and asked me “How do you see this place?” I told all that could hear and understand that I felt so profoundly privileged just to be here and that I found the people to be beautiful and precious in the eyes of God. I added that I would like to extend my friendship and affection to all present. The room hushed at my emotional expression; people nodded and quietly thanked me.

We were now headed for Kirwa, an isolated rural village in Kajo Kaji county in southern Sudan. We discovered that vehicles ran on Tuesdays and Fridays to coincide with a vibrant market that operates on these days and is situated just on the Ugandan side of the border. We travelled for about two hours in an old ute. Deng and I were crammed into the front with the driver and all our luggage. The vehicle carried 14 persons in the back with all their luggage and livestock.

When we arrived, the people in the back were no longer black but were covered in fine brown dust. Only their eyes retained their original colour. Even though I had no feeling in my legs, I was still pleased that I had paid the 80-cent surcharge to ride in the cab.

From the market we negotiated a poda poda (passenger bicycle) for the three-hour journey across the border into Sudan to Kirwa, the village where Deng’s father and elder brother reside. There is no border post on this winding, rocky dirt track. The locals consider a certain creek crossing to mark the international boundary, after which my poda poda rider chastised oncoming bicycle traffic, saying something like “Hey you – this is Sudan! Don’t you know that we drive on the righthand side of the road!”

As we arrived on the outskirts of Kirwa Displaced Persons Camp, we were greeted by children near and far who echoed the Dinka cry of “co-adger” (white man). I was this village’s very first white visitor.

We were formally greeted by Deng’s father, elder brother and a host of other dignitaries, some of whom had walked several hours to greet us. Formal and casual greetings alike require every hand to be shaken. When you greet someone of higher social standing, you must touch your right arm with your left hand as a mark of deference and respect.

I was not sure where I fit in this social order; many deferred to me but I deferred to older men, especially if they appeared poised and dignified regardless of whether they looked rich or poor (which can generally be ascertained by the standard of their dress, especially on an important occasion like this).

Later we were settled in our quarters – a traditional Dinka mud hut. Ours was the newest and best hut in this house (a house is a family group of huts). Throughout our week-long stay in Kirwa, we were waited on hand and foot by two women who were brought here from a neighbouring village for that specific purpose.

Mary Amour took special care of me. She cooked my food and presented it to me three times daily (except when there was no food available). She washed my clothes, made my bed, and swept out my hut everyday. She heated up bath water for me in the evenings and carried the hot tub to the bathroom.

The bathroom is a pile of nicely selected rocks which you stand on while bathing. surrounded by a fence of thick shoulder-height thatch grass. The only furniture in the bathroom is a rudimentary rack made of tree branches; this rack is at chest height and supports the tub from which you bail water onto yourself.

While standing naked, bathing, your head and shoulders are clearly visible to all who pass by. At first I was a little self-conscious, but once I got used to it, it was really quite relaxing. The very peaceful, tranquil surrounds glowed golden in the light of the setting sun. The contrast of the gentle cool breeze and the hot water is quite invigorating.

Alier, Deng’s elder brother was enthusiastically hospitable, especially to me. He boldly announced in broad terms that we would be very welcome and richly provided for, for up to a month. This was a proud display of his comparative wealth.

During our visit, it was not planting or harvesting season, so most of the men were idle. The preferred past time was lengthy discussions held under the shade of a big tree, but some young men played chess and older, wealthier men (like Deng’s dad) drank imported Ugandan beer.

In contrast, all the women were constantly engaged in domestic labour, even in the very late stages of pregnancy, and including young girls. They pounded foods into pulp, killed and prepared chickens, collected and chopped firewood; they cooked and served food and cleaned up afterwards; they kept the huts immaculate and even swept the ground to leave bare, clean earth. They were at the constant beck and call of the men for which they received very little (if any) demonstrations of appreciation.

It is a great shame for a Dinka man to engage in domestic duties, and a woman would be equally shamed if she saw a man do it.

Mary Amour (22yo) was at the lower end of the social order and bore the weight of the domestic burden. She would immediately vacate a chair if a man approached. She was ordered, sometimes harshly to bring a chair or water, or fire (to light cigarettes). I never saw a sour look on her face. When I approached her, she would put her left hand behind her back and lean forward slightly in a bow. She had a lovely smile and I felt affection for her. When I spoke to her at length, though her English was reasonable I could not even communicate the concept of resentment. The work needed to be done, and she was the one to do it.