Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

At its core, this blog is intended to blend photography with prose in an attempt to convey what I see and feel during my trips to countries and communities in conflict.  However, I begin my journey through South Sudan deliberately without a photograph.  Too often, our perceptions of Africa are shaped by images of poverty-stricken villages, skin-and-bones children huddled in rags, women clamoring for food aid.  Undoubtedly, these images are part of the reality here, but they are not the whole picture.  Sometimes the whole picture is what lies beyond the frame.

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For my first trip into the field, in October 2013, we were headed straight for “the anus of the world,” Amokpiny.  Amokpiny seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, a small border town between Lakes and Unity states that was almost entirely depopulated during the second Sudanese Civil War from 1983-2005.  Allegedly, residents had started returning in the last several years, but still, I could make out only two permanent structures in the area.  “This is such an improvement from the last time I was here!” my colleague exclaimed.  “Improvement from what?” I thought.  In fact, the Dinka do not call this place Amokpiny because of its remoteness and lack of development, but rather because of its central, strategic location, just as the Dinka believe that the anus is in the center of the body.  Amokpiny lies at the intersection of the Dinka lands of Lakes State and the Nuer lands of southern Unity State.  It is on the route to rich pastures and plentiful water for grazing during the dry season and is host to a new road from Juba toward the border with Sudan that promises to bring trade to this tiny town.

Despite the benefits of this strategic location, Amokpiny also lies in the crossfire of some of the worst cattle raiding in South Sudan.  Historically, this area was plagued by brutal interethnic violence dating back to the 1991 split between Dinka and Nuer within in the SPLA guerrilla force that liberated South Sudan from the repressive Islamist government in Khartoum.  Fundamentally, the split was a power play by rebel leader Riek Machar against SPLA commander-in-chief John Garang, but ethnicity was used as the key to mobilizing rural youth and cattle keepers to fight as local militias in the broader national struggle – and to perpetrate heinous crimes against neighboring communities that had previously boasted positive relations.  The legacy of these atrocities continues to plague the region, and has become even more inflamed with the ongoing flood of weapons across the country and the incitement of interethnic hatred since the national crisis erupted in December 2013.

But in October 2013, our trip to Amokpiny was aimed at conducting consultations with local residents and an initial survey of the land to determine the potential of establishing a border market.  We had heard that relations between Dinka and Nuer had begun to improve, that several Nuer families had started building tukuls in the community, and that there were even a few cases of intermarriage.  We hoped that the proposed border market would help to bolster the goodwill by supporting opportunities for mutual gain through trade.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a group of a dozen energetic cattle camp youth emerging from the brush.  They were decorated with all of the bling of a rural South Sudanese gangster, displaying colorful tufts of hair, vibrant mismatched robes, and large ivory earrings.  One young man proudly presented an ivory bracelet around his wrist.  But more noticeable than his jewelry was his swollen, red, misshapen hand, a sign that his ornament was a recent acquisition, a gift from his father to award the young man’s prestige in cattle raiding.  The only way to put on such prized adornments and ensure that they are maintained as permanent signs of strength, honor, and family wealth is to break the hand of the youth and slip the bracelet over the mangled hand and onto his wrist.  The bracelet had cost nearly 2000 SSP, approximately $500.  The young man puffed up his chest and smiled through the pain.

Emboldened by their ornaments and youthful bravado, the young men began making offers for my hand in marriage.  “50 cows!”  “170 cows, plus 30 goats,” they pledged as dowry.  “Please, I’m worth more than that!” I retorted, playing into their game.  “200,000!” one boldly shouted over the rest.  The group laughed hysterically.  The record bride price was only 300 cows to date.  The youth pulled me into a photo, dancing around me as my colleague captured their performance.  They posed with arms crossed, tough lower lips, and penetrating stares that served to prove their toughness; or with arms outstretched, huge grins, and gleaming eyes that betrayed their sense of victory at wooing a young, white woman into their photo-op.  A few of the younger boys jumped in, mimicking their older brothers by brandishing their fists triumphantly.  Pleased with the photos, the youth bounded away back into the brush.

I wandered towards a group of women quietly washing clothes a few yards away.  They squatted on their heels, surrounded by soapy, muddy water.  While the clothes they were scrubbing matched the bright blues and greens worn by the cattle camp youth, their own dresses were little more than rags in faded shades of grey.  I was drawn to the simplicity of this quotidian activity in sharp contrast to the theatrics of the cattle camp youth.  I lifted my camera and gestured to the women, inquiring whether I could take their photograph. They coyly shook their heads to decline.  I thought perhaps they had misinterpreted my intentions, so I attempted to explain further and lifted my camera again.  But they smiled and continued to decline, this time pointing at their dresses and miming brushing their hair.  I understood completely.  These women had a strong self-conception that they wanted accurately portrayed in my photograph.  I had come unannounced into their community, and these women wanted to be depicted not in the midst of dirty water and daily chores, but modeling colorful clothes and proudly showing off their families and their homes.  The youth had had their moment in the spotlight, virile and gloating.  These women felt no need to put on a show for their moment, but only to express with a quiet grace their desire to be portrayed with due dignity.  The simplicity and honesty of their demand touched me deeply.  That day, in the anus of the world, I felt truly humbled.

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This blog is defined not by the assumptions I arrived with and by the images I anticipated capturing, but by the poignant and beautiful realities I am lucky enough to discover along the way.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, the absence of a picture where you would expect to find one is worth a thousand more.


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