I decide to shave in the morning even though the growth on my face is slight. Once I leave Bor, I won’t see running water for a week. I find few things less pleasant than an itchy neck in Sudan’s oppressive heat. I’ll have more than enough to make me feel uncomfortable in the coming days.
Bor is livelier than I anticipated. Under the cover of darkness it looked like little more than a few disparate shops. The morning brought vendors, shoppers, police officers and kids into the unpaved streets. We stop briefly in a market area to purchase credit units for Mary’s Thuriya satellite phone. A hallmark of underdevelopment in Jonglei is the virtual absence of mobile phone networks. As soon as one reaches the outer limits of Bor town, the signals fade along with most other signs of modernity.
The “road” from Bor to Pibor originates from an intersection on the south end of town. A red-and-white crossing gate ominously marks the entrance of this narrow dirt track. The road is of notably poorer quality than the Juba-Bor passage, which allows speeds of nearly 70 km per hour. We’ll be lucky to break 30 here. The earth in this part of Jonglei is known as “black cotton,” a reference to its unusual color and consistency. It’s particularly soft, even to the touch, and small amounts of rain transform it into an impassable, tar-like substance. During the rain season, this part of Jonglei becomes an archipelago.
The outskirts of Bor are inhabited by the Dinka-Bor, a large and powerful tribe in southern Sudan. Their small, grass-thatch huts are visible in clusters along the road. The Dinka-Bor are in frequent conflict with the neighboring Nuer and Murle over cattle and land. The tribes here are pastoralists and many compete for the same scarce resources. In this period of extreme drought, grazing lands are coveted. Additionally, severe shortages of food and water increase tension, competition and violence. Intense inter-communal fighting during 2009, which left some 2,500 dead, created a cycle of revenge killings that show few signs of abating.
Mary Boyoi and her campaign team are Murle from the neighboring Pibor County. The Murle inspire fear among their neighbors with fierce warrior culture and, perhaps more importantly, their custom of abducting children. As we pass through the small Dinka village of Anyidi, Mary suddenly orders the driver to stop. He pulls to a clearing and Mary jumps out to campaign among Dinka in the village center. She smiles broadly as she hands posters to a group of older men.
Within minutes the pleasantries fade and her Murle identity becomes the heated focal point. “We were raided by Murle just last week,” an elder claims. “They killed several people and took a small child.” Mary’s smile fades as his acrimony mounts. “How can we vote for a Murle when the Murle are treating our people like this?” Mary tries nervously to maintain eye contact with the speaker. It’s clear she’s in a minefield. “I hope to make peace among our tribes,” she tells the group. “If I am elected, I will work on identifying abducted children and returning them home.” The crowd seems skeptical.
“I told them that I can solve this problem of child trafficking and abduction when I’m in the parliament,” Mary says. “But they let me know that if I campaign to my own Murle people on the promise of identifying and returning abducted children, none of them will vote for me.” Conflict politics are notoriously tricky.
After Anyidi, the green, wooded Dinka areas give way to a blistering prairie. The road becomes less consistent, veering sharply where the original track became impassable. The vegetation on the side of road is sparse and dry. It’s visibly clear than during the rain season, everything here, including the road, is submerged in swamp water.
Gazelle and antelope dash along the side of the truck. The expansive prairie is part of one of the largest migration routes in Africa. Our driver attempts to race Gazelle, a pursuit I find irritating. While everyone else seems entertained, I can only imagine us cracking an axel on the uneven road and being stranded, without shade, in this blistering wasteland. I do my best to keep my mouth shut but disapproval forms my visible expression.
A metal bar jutting from that arid soil marks the transition from Dinka to Murle territory. Without a guide, a foreigner would never notice. “Welcome to my land,” Mary says. The horizon is as barren as its been for the last five hours.
Ahead, a group of Murle men lay prone under a solitary tree. They don deep, decorative branding on their bare torsos. Mary approaches with a cautious smile and a handful of campaign posters. The men receive her pleasantly but with evident reservation. Her polite introduction again gives way to yelling. “The SPLA are beating us,” a man exclaims. He launches into passionate speech about the ongoing process of SPLA-led disarmament in the area. “They are coming to take the guns but they are beating and torturing us in the process. What will you do about this?” Mary sighs and asks for more information. She has not been to these parts in many years and some of the claims are new for her, too. The man goes on; the beatings, the cattle raiding, the lack of food, of water, of health facilities.
The challenges are innumerable. Mary tries to sum up and leave on a positive note. Again, the men appear unconvinced.
After several bumpy hours, our vehicle rolls to a stop in the small Murle village of Manyabol. The area consists of a few grass thatched huts and shops. This windswept community is the only sign of civilization for hundreds of miles in all directions. It is the trading center for several adjacent cattle camps, most of which are currently unoccupied due to drought. No one appears to be doing much of anything at all. Groups of men sit under what little shade is available, improvising games in the dirt. Women form their own groups; cooking, talking & spitting. Nude children dart in all directions, some venturing closer for a more critical review of my pale skin. A boy stealthily strokes the hair on my forearm before bolting away in a fit of laughter.
I try to play along but I’m tired.
I pitch my small tent on even ground, arrange my things inside and prepare for a night without a mattress. I pray that the Dinka-Bor won’t settle any scores tonight.