By Philip Thon Aleu
The scale of early marriages in South Sudan is being underestimated by outsiders, but people born in these communities find it even hard to campaign against the practice. In this article I describe a true story that I witnessed earlier this year of a girl who was forced to marry in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. However, the names and locations have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
Amer Marial sat facing in the opposite direction from her father and paternal uncles. She cannot look them direct into the face even during the night as that would amount to indiscipline in Bor culture. Amer was called to discuss an importance issue with her father and uncles after an evening meal.
“What is importance is that I, your father, and your siblings and mother will have something to eat. That is why we called you,” Marial, Amer’s father concluded a long speech encompassing how his family has waited for the day a man would come and ask to marry his eldest daughter.
It was the first week of September and there was no moon, the only source of light to this village. The darkness fell quickly meaning that the importance family meeting was held earlier than usual. It was the first time Amer sat before his father to discuss an issue. When she left Agoon village, Makuach Payam (district) in May after the end of
first term’s holidays, she spoke with her father while standing. In fact she had started moving to the west on her journey to Bor town when her father called her to say that she should always take care in school and avoid bad girls because she would be spoiled if she was not careful. She has thought about what this brief advice meant but
concluded that her father wanted her to stay away from bad girls – which means, in the village context, girls that go about with men.
Little is known about education for girls in this corner of the world. Only boys from this village have ever remained in schools beyond secondary education. Three boys enrolled to university after the war of South Sudan in 2005. Whether those boys will come back and show the significance of education to this village is not yet known. Boys from neighboring villages, now big men in Juba, returned after graduating from university a few years ago and got ministerial positions in the recent government reshuffles. When they visit their village this Christmas cows will be slaughtered, extra beer will be imported and small gatherings will continue until dawn. Their appointments were celebrated by clan members for a whole week. The success of these men means a lot to these villages.
The countdown is already underway and only three months are still solid; October, November and December.
Notably, none of the educated children from the neighboring villages are girls and Amer’s father doesn’t understand why his daughter is adamant that she wants to remain in school. The family discussion has one objective: To tell Amer to forget about school and marry to the man who has approached her father.
Amer returned home two weeks ago after midyear exams and is due to return to school in seven days. Before coming for this meeting, she thought it was about her request for tuition fees that her father was now taking seriously. She thought about how to respond but before she said a word, her uncle interrupted.
“What your father said is important and you have to accept,” her uncle Deng said.
“I am in senior two and I want to complete my studies,” Amer spoke for the first time.
“Children of these days!” another uncle exclaimed.
“They don’t care about their fathers and siblings,” another uncle yelled.
But one man, who had remained silenced during the long discussion, cleared his voice and began to speak.
“The man we are talking about is educated and working in a very big position in the government in Juba. Not in Bor. He knows about education and I think, daughter of my brother, he has seen your determination to continue with your studies and that is why he approached us. We told him about your stubbornness when someone
interferes with your studies,” said Alier.
Uncle Deng then volunteered and offered an in-depth profile of the man, who he said was called Hon. Thon-Bai and was intelligent and rich.
“As his name reflects, he is a real man. How many people have accumulated sufficient wealth in such a small time like him? He is brave and won’t fear entering any office. He is strong and loves his people. We are sure if he marries you, your father and siblings will not be the same again. The education you are talking about has nothing to add to his wealth.”
Deng end his speech abruptly in a show of anger toward Amer’s unwavering determination to continue with her studies and defiance.
Amer has heard about Thon-Bai as Member of Parliament in Juba but never heard about his immense wealth and education background. She knew about him when he speaking on the girl child day two years ago. The theme for that year was “Let all children go to school".
She knows that she won’t win the battle but must try. A frog never gives up even when the head is swallowed by a predator, she might have thought. The frog would stretch it legs in the air and grasp any object in its vicinity. Sometimes, the frog would grasp the bird at the neck and might not be swallowed at once. Amer wanted to be exactly like that frog and so she commences a long battle.
“I want to complete my secondary school education and then I will be ready for marriage,” Amer said, her second chance to speak since the discussion began.
She said there are many girls out there who are ready to marry and wondered why a Member of Parliament would come for a school girl, moreover, a village girl. For her point to carry some weight, Amer reminded her father and uncles that in the future, if she is allowed to continue with her education, she may too be Member of
Parliament representing women and would be called Honorable.
“After how long? After how long my daughter?” her father Marial interrupted, this time growing impatient.
When Marial married in 1989, he paid fifty cows as dowry and was left with nothing. God blessed their marriage with a baby girl in 1992. Marial used to stay in cattle camp but after giving all his cows for a woman, he had taken on farming since then for survival. His hands are now hardened and his knees developed rough wriggles. These marks on his hands and knees are the signs of holding farming stick and pressing the ground for support as he tilled the land over the last two decades.
His favorite cow was brown in color and he too owned a big bell called “looth.” Brown color is called ‘Amer’ in Bor dialect. His nickname is “Loth aa—mer” – meaning, the bell of the brown cow. That is the name has held onto and reminded him of the good days. With the pending marrying of his daughter, the goods days were returning, Marial thought. Marial’s father was a wealthy man in 1950s who owned many
cows including a smooth ox colored black-and-white (a color called Marial in Bor dialect). Children are named after the colors of cows given in dowry in Bor as well as other cattle communities in South Sudan.
Marial’s father married many wives. A son of the second wife, Marial was the second born of three brothers. His elder brother’s daughter married in 2007 and had 100 cows paid as dowry - not including the drinks and cows slaughtered for the celebration. He took his smaller share from his brother. Now, here is a chance to have a bigger portion from his daughter’s marriage if only his plans were not spoiled by education.
“How long will I be looking at other people fetching cows from their daughters and I just go there to eat meat and come back to the farm? For how long should I wait?” Marial said firmly.
It was passed midnight and a decision had to be taken. Marial and his brothers – including sons from other women of his father, asked Amer to come back early tomorrow with a better option. Or else, they know what to do.
Amer had a sleepless night. She had heard about girls beaten to death after they refused to marry men chosen by their parents. Other girls lost their teeth and some young women are still nursing wounds suffered for questioning the choice of her husband. What would befall her? She has to decide her fate before the morning break.
How can an educated man, representing his people in parliament descend to the village and destroy this innocence, poor girl’s future? She thought over and over but without a definite conclusion. She decided to desert the village and run to the people who work in human rights in Bor.
But human rights people don’t know what exactly goes on in the villages and there have never been any reports of human rights activists reversing a families decision to marry off their daughter. If there are any, Amer has never heard of them.
“If I am caught it will be a disaster,” she thought.
There was a tight security provided by village boys around the home where girls sleep. Any decision to escape would not succeed whatsoever.
At 6:30am elders converged in the compound and Amer was called out. She did not know it was already time for the meeting. Asked if she has accepted to marry Hon. Thon-Bai, Amer kept silent for a moment. Angry questions were now pouring on her. She knew exactly what would happen if her answer is ‘no’.
“I want to continue with my studies,” she said.
Series of stocks fell on her and she had to change her statement there and then. She did not to want to be beaten helpless.
She said what nobody had expected.
“I agree to what you said.”
His father, Marial stood up and sang his favorite song.
“Ca loth aa-mer kaac weeric.” That is – ‘I ties my bell of the brown cow in the middle of the night.’
Streams of tears were now following from Amer’s eyes. Circular drops of sweat were forming on her forehead as she sits helplessly. She doesn’t understand why these people were happy at her sorrow.
Marial was happy for two reasons. His daughter is not spoiled and will earn him good number of cows and money from Hon. Thon-Bai.
After eating food without milk-butter for twenty years, his daughter, the only asset he has, is now bouncing the sweet memories of the cattle camps. Marial did not want to beg and that is why he invested his energies in the soil till his daughter grew old enough to attract rich man.
Marial’s living standard will now improve. His boys are still young and will not marry soon. He has enough time to enjoy his cows until those boys reach adolescence. Then he will begin worrying again. He would loss the cows to dowries settlement of those boys.
For now, it is time for celebration. Two dozens of beer were ordered and a goat slaughtered for elders to spend the day with the family before a message is sent to Hon. Thon-Bai about the girl’s acceptance for the marriage arrangements to commence. The process will then continue smoothly.
(The second part of this article will discuss how the marriage arrangements went and whether Amer was able to continue her education after her marriage.)
Philip Thon Aleu is a South Sudanese journalist. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org