A man of no country

Sep 8, 2010 at 5:00 am

“The nights are sleepless and full of exotic dreams,” I told my cousins when only one week remained of my stay in Africa.

After a long absence from my people — 23 years since I left Sudan in the storm of war — I recently returned to this mystical place. During my exile, I have missed my people, dreamed of them, and occasionally cried for them. When I finally stood among them, the feeling was spiritual, although I barely recognized them.

My cousin Thiong Mayen — who also fled years ago — and I found ourselves among relatives who did not know us. The family members who did remember us shed many tears. The tears continued as they learned of the tribulations we endured during our exile, which took us to many foreign countries, and ultimately the United States. My uncle explained to the family’s younger generation that many other relatives left the country to escape the violence, while many who remained are among the 2 million victims killed during Sudan’s civil war that spanned 22 years.

Only God knows how I felt that evening, once again sitting with my family. We listened as our elders detailed the violence and destruction. Though happy to be a part of the family’s circle, I could not help but feel I was not really reuniting with them. Rather, it felt like another lonely moment for an exile. But the longer I stayed, the more comfortable I became. I soon visited my favorite childhood spot where I used to stick fight and wrestle other boys from my village.

Three weeks into our stay, my uncle called upon the sub-tribe to pray for us and welcome us back. A huge bull was slaughtered and the village women prepared many delicious foods. During the feast, our uncle summoned the wise men and dignitaries of the village to share with us words of wisdom. The elders described us as lost sons of the village due to a civil war that wiped out families and scattered people like sorghum seeds spread in a field.

After the elders talked, my cousin and I spoke. While standing in front of my people, I felt empowered, dignified and made whole again. The feelings of inferiority, helplessness and indignation that I endured in many other countries began to fade. My people nodded and clapped. Some of them cried.

Throughout my trip, I was often on the brink of shedding tears. I almost cried when I entered the house I was born in 31 years ago. The walls remained intact. A huge Tamarind tree still stood strong and healthy along our fence. I wanted to ask the walls and that tree what really happened at this spot after I left so long ago. I then went to my elementary school in the city of Juba in southern Sudan. I surveyed the seemingly ancient buildings, which were covered with marks from shrapnel and bullets. I walked across the campus, observing many jubilant children oblivious to what had happened at their school.

I approached a security guard at the school and introduced myself. He said, “A lot has happened since you left the country, son. Only the land and the names of the places have not changed, but many people have gone. Some died in war, some of old age. None of your former teachers are still alive.” I was stunned and said goodbye. I went to an old woman who was selling candies on the school campus, and bought more than 100 pieces. I called the kids over and explained to them that I used to go to the school where they are now, and the candies were my gift to them.

After several weeks in Sudan, I began to think of the United States of America. I began to miss my students at YouthBuild Louisville, a program that empowers young adults through education and leadership. It is a wonderful part of my life. I felt confused. I tried hard to be a Sudanese, but I could not disregard my long-term friendships with so many Americans. I had also tried to be an American, but my family blood and love for my people could not be forgotten.

Now, here I am again in the United States, trying to find the place where I belong. Alas, I’m a man of no country.


Peter Thiong is a Sudanese refugee who has lived in the United States for nine years. He graduated from Berea College in 2008 and is employed at YouthBuild Louisville.