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Being Careful

“Pop!” Sitting in front of my tent today washing some clothes, I heard the first gunshot since returning to Duk. After being in Canada for a little over a month I had begun to realize how ridiculous some of my stories from the village sounded. Talking about cattle raids, insecurity, vehicles being attacked, and the difficulties of the rainy season left some wondering what the hell I was doing. The constant reminders to be careful, be safe, don’t be stupid, and don’t take any unnecessary risks, began to play on my mind before I returned. For the first time I began to worry about my safety and wonder what type of place I was living in. Maybe I had misrepresented the danger to people when I was home, after all I never felt fearful being in Duk, or maybe I was just misleading myself. At least the single shot today gave me pause, before I went home I had heard four outside our compound, and had just rolled over and gone back to sleep.

The most difficult aspect to convey to people is the normalcy with which these things are treated here. They are a regular part of life. Yesterday I went for a walk in the village, usually I go with someone, to have company and act as a translator when people want to really get into a good conversation in Dinka. Yesterday I went alone to check out the village and see how bad the flooding had become. The water is certainly not as bad as last year, and I was only getting my feet wet for about ten minutes, trying to avoid the razor sharp snails. As I slowly made my way through the village greeting those I knew, and some I didn’t, I decided to return to the clinic. I forgot the road I chose was usually one of the first flooded during the rainy season and this year was no different, it had turned into a small knee deep lake. As I stood on the edge contemplating walking through or going around, I saw a group of young men headed towards me, there were about ten of them and most had guns, not an uncommon sight in Duk. I stood and waited for them to walk through the water and realized I didn’t recognize any of them. Finding a white person alone in the middle of the village must have seemed rather odd. I greeted them as they approached and they continued cautiously.

I asked them where they had come from and what they were doing. “Patrolling” they told me. “Protecting cows?” I asked. “Not only cows, even you!” the young man with the best English replied with a smile. I asked him how old he was. “I was born in 1994,” he told me proudly, and he wasn’t the youngest. At nineteen it was part of the responsibility of this young man and his peers to patrol the area. With no soldiers around and very limited police, the responsibility to protect the cows and the community fell to these young boys. In their minds it was not necessarily unsafe, or noble, or extraordinary, but just what is done.

We walked through the village and I learned that the young men were visiting from a neighbouring village. They were tasked with watching out for Duk Payuel, the village that the clinic is near. Most were the same age as the most talkative one and they were interested in what I was doing in Duk, when I was going to marry a Dinka woman, and how many cows I had. When I told them none they said, “that’s ok, you bring money.” I laughed and asked if I could take a picture of my newly formed entourage. They one young man said it was probably not a good idea, until I told him I wanted a picture of everyone. Then the others said of course it was ok! As I snapped a few shot I couldn’t help but notice the serene expressions on their faces. For them maybe a peculiar twist to a tiring Sunday. As I parted ways with the young men and began to walk through the water, I laughed realizing the irony that I was probably much more at risk of injury by cutting my foot than getting shot.

This time of year the community is vulnerable to cattle raiding, the grass is very long and people have planted many crops, which give raiders many places to hide. Two people were killed a few weeks ago when they were tracked down after they had taken cows. When I told people stories like this while at home most of the reactions were the same, muted confusion and concern. But here these stories go right alongside stories of the rains, or the harvest, or getting stuck in the mud. Just another part of living in Duk. It is also important to make the distinction (especially when my mother is reading) that the danger to people here is relatively low as the cows are really the only thing of value, and the target of raiders.

After the single shot this afternoon people went to investigate as I continued to wash. I went and read my book, fell asleep for a while, and then cleaned my tent. After the many warnings and concerns I received in Canada, I felt trepidation at coming back to a place which often seems dangerous from the outside. Now that I am here, it is just another Sunday afternoon in Duk.


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