My older brother, Deng, doesn’t live with us anymore. I don’t know where he went. He’s been gone a long time now but my heart still aches when I come home and he’s not there. Sometimes I make out he’s hiding behind the bushes, waiting for me to find him like in the old days. But he isn’t, and I know he’s not hiding anywhere nearby, no matter how hard I pretend. I know he’s far from our village of Pacong. Some nights I dream I’m walking with him across a valley of tall green grass beyond the hills.
I’ve asked Grandpa if he knows where Deng is but he doesn’t like talking about it. As my father is dead and Grandpa is getting old, it’s up to me to bring our family back together.
Thiko tells me I have to keep believing I will see my brother again. I must never let go of that hope, she says, and her voice is always kind. Thiko is my good friend, even though she’s a girl, and I try to heed what she says. But I find it hard to hold onto hope at times, it feels so slippery.
At school she and I sit in the same row, Thiko on the far west side of the room, me on the east. Our classroom is made of mud walls with a thatched roof and everyone who gets to sit inside it and learn is proud to be there. From the window I can see children from the lower classes under the trees. I used to sit under those same trees when I was younger and didn’t know how to write with an ink pen. I’d look over to this window, the one I’m looking out of now, and I’d see Deng. He would wave or smile and I’d wave and smile back. I didn’t even have to look at the window to know he was there, I just always assumed he would be.
I can also see the office of our teachers from here. This morning we’re waiting for Miss Ayen. My class has sixty boys and ten girls, but you wouldn’t know it from the noise level as we wait. You’d think it was the other way around. The girls are so loud I can’t stand it.
‘Can you please be quiet?’ I shout to no one in particular, and a short chubby girl with a round face and bright eyes sticks her tongue out at me. Another throws a pencil. I duck and it misses my head, just. The rest go on yelling and laughing.
‘They sound like weaverbirds having a fit,’ says Chieng from the row behind me.
I turn and agree with him. Chieng is small in frame but he’s tough. Last year he bit the ear of a bully, and didn’t stop until his lower and upper teeth met through the flesh. When he finally let go, the screaming victim ran straight home to his mama.
Chieng is always making jokes, about the girls, the teacher. The only girl he doesn’t joke about is Akol, who moved to our village not long ago. She lives on the road leading down to the Nile. Chieng follows her around like a puppy, brings her squirrels after a hunt. It makes his day when Akol thanks him or gives him a smile. He likes to believe she thinks he’s a superhero. Without Thon-gool, my dog, I don’t catch squirrels anymore. I curse the Sudan People’s Liberation Army who killed him.
The girls quiet down when Miss Ayen comes in to give us English dictation. She walks up and down the rows of desks as she reads from her book. I try to pay attention but Chieng nudges me.
‘Hey Juba,’ he whispers, low enough that Miss Ayen can’t hear. He isn’t intimidated by her, even though she’s stern and serious about learning. Chieng is not so serious about learning. He likes to fool around whenever he can, and sometimes this is fun and I join in, but mostly I want to learn.
‘Hey!’ he whispers, louder this time.
I wait until Miss Ayen has walked past and then, as I turn, my forearm bumps my ruler off my desk and sends it clattering to the floor.
Chieng fights laughter. Miss Ayen stops reading and she stops walking for a moment, still with her back to me. Everyone else stops writing, pencils mid-air. All eyes are on me except Miss Ayen’s. She hasn’t turned around yet. I want her to turn around. I want to see her expression.
‘Sorry, Miss Ayen,’ I say, leaning down to retrieve the ruler. But my hands feel like they’ve been greased and the ruler keeps slipping from my grasp. It clatters to the floor again. Chieng laughs, doing his best to be silent about it.
The third time I drop the ruler it falls in such a way I can’t reach it from my seat. I must stand up to get it. I scramble out and kneel on the floor and try to grasp it with both hands, but it’s a wild animal with a mind of its own. Chieng lets loose with a snort of laughter.
‘Shh,’ I hiss at him.
Miss Ayen only turns around once I’m finally back in my seat. Her face is expressionless but I can tell she thinks I’ve done this whole thing on purpose. I take up my pencil and glue my eyes to the paper. The silence in the room is like smoke.
‘Come here, Juba,’ she says at last, and her voice is calm.
She has returned to her desk and is waiting for me. I put my pencil down and slink up. Even though my back is turned to the class, I can feel everyone watching. I’m wondering what Thiko is thinking. I’m embarrassed to know she’s looking at me right now.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Ayen,’ I say. ‘I wasn’t trying to be disruptive.’
She studies me and says evenly, ‘Whether you were trying to or not, interrupting a dictation is not something I take lightly. Is it fair to your classmates, who are trying to concentrate?’
I lower my eyes. ‘No, Miss Ayen.’
‘You know the rules, Juba. Bend over and touch the desk.’
I do as she says, keeping my eyes on the worn surface of her desk. No one, except maybe Chieng, silently once more, is laughing now. They are all glad they’re not me.
Miss Ayen’s red rubber rod zings as it moves through the air. I grit my teeth. The first hit is always startling, even when you know it’s coming, the second is the one that hurts most. My eyes water but I blink it away. I don’t want my classmates to think I’m crying. The third hit hurts a bit less, partly because my backside is already going numb. I blink again, my jaw clenched. None of us boys want to cry in front of girls. Miss Ayen has never whipped any of them, even though they deserve it the most.
We were all surprised when Miss Ayen appeared in our classroom for the first time. We didn’t know women could be teachers. I thought she must be lost when I saw her standing in front of our class. Nobody got up and greeted her, like we do male teachers, and there was no reaction as she introduced herself.
‘Tell me your names,’ she said. ‘Starting from here.’ She pointed at a thin boy sitting in the corner but he just stared at her with a stunned expression on his face. ‘You don’t know your name?’ she asked him.
There were murmurs and giggles from the other boys.
‘Well,’ said Miss Ayen. ‘Which of you can tell me your names?’
Thiko raised her hand, and soon the rest of the class did likewise. That day we found out that females could be teachers too. Eventually we learned they could be great teachers.
At the end of today’s class Miss Ayen asks me to stay behind for a minute.
‘Sounds like you’re in trouble,’ Chieng whispers as he makes his way out of the room. ‘Good luck.’
Even Thiko casts a worried look in my direction as she files out, but Miss Ayen smiles as I walk up to her desk.
‘You’re not in trouble,’ she says, and my shoulders relax. She reaches into her desk drawer and pulls out a well-thumbed book. ‘This is for you,’ she says.
Really? A reward for being punished?
I take it from her. ‘Winnie-the-Pooh,’ I read. ‘What is that?’
‘It’s a childhood book of mine. One of my favourites. Pooh is a foolish bear much of the time,’ she says.
My heart squeezes. Is she comparing me to a foolish bear?
But as I flip through the pages I’m drawn in. ‘Can I borrow it?’ I ask.
‘It’s a gift, Juba, one I hope you’ll enjoy.’ She looks at me as if she feels a little guilty. ‘You know I have to punish everyone equally, but in fact you’re my best student. Certainly the best at English. It’s a pleasure having you in the class, most of the time. You can take this book home and share it with your brother and sister. You’re a great example for them. My hope is that they’ll see how much you love learning and will come to love it too. Pooh may be a silly bear in the main, but he has a heart of gold and he’s loyal, he loves his friends. I see these qualities in you. The difference is, you’re a lot smarter than he is.’
Knowing the bear has a heart of gold lights my heart, but at first I don’t want to accept Miss Ayen’s gift. I’m still mad at her for whipping me. My backside is aching. Teachers don’t whip their favourite students. But not accepting might give her another reason to whip me, because I’d be refusing to do what I’m supposed to be doing as a student, reading. Then I think how Miss Ayen wants me to learn, and that’s a good thing. So I thank her and take the book, cradling it like a treasure as I go to join the rest of the class for geography.
When I was a small boy, before I attended school, I thought the River Nile and the sun and the tallest trees of Pacong were the boundaries of the whole world. But our geography teacher tells us stories about other countries and the endless seas and oceans that surround them. I love geography, but I’m looking forward to breakfast once the class is over, because every day I wake up at four am, or sometimes five when there’s no moon. I work in the garden until six o’clock, then have a bath and clean my teeth. At half past six I take the goats to the fields, and leave for school at seven-thirty.
Our classes start at eight o’clock, and we have two before breakfast, at ten. We can eat this wherever we want. Chieng and I used to have breakfast at the base of a tamarind tree. I would wedge myself between its leafy branches and watch the never-ending blue sky. It made me think of impossible things, like climbing trees so high that I could touch the clouds. But lately I eat with Thiko.
There’s shouting and laughter as students stream off to breakfast like chickens being released from a cage. The dust makes my nose itch as though an insect is crawling inside. Thiko and I go to sit on a log at the edge of the yard and I show her my book. I won’t show it to Chieng, I don’t want him to make fun of me and call me teacher’s pet.
‘What was that in English class?’ she asks. ‘You should know better than to mess around with Miss Ayen.’
‘I wasn’t doing it on purpose. Chieng was trying to tell me something and when I turned to look at him I knocked the ruler off. Then it became the slipperiest thing ever and I couldn’t keep hold of it.’
Thiko smiles. ‘It was kind of funny.’
Well, if it made Thiko smile, it was worth it. Even if it did get me whipped.
Thiko’s family came to live in the village about five years ago. Before that they lived in a cattle camp northeast of Pacong, three hours’ walk away, where they looked after cows. Cattle are like gold and currency in South Sedan. You’re nobody in our tribes if you don’t have a cow. I don’t have one. I never liked cows. My father had fifteen cows and a great fat brown bull. He was proud of his cows, although his herd was nothing compared to those people who own hundreds. He took me several times to the cattle camp when I was young, but it was no fun for me sleeping beside the smelly cow dung under the moonlight, covered in ashes to ward off mosquitoes.
Maybe I’ll have to buy some cows one day, when I grow up and am ready to marry. Our tribe has a saying: no cows, no wife. Or maybe a rich man with a lot of cows will marry my little sister Nyanbuot, and I won’t have to buy any at all.
Thiko’s father didn’t want her to go to school at first, but when all the family’s cows were raided by a rival tribe and there were none to look after, they came to Pacong. Once they were here, her mother convinced her father to allow Thiko to go to school, and I became friends with her.
That came about when I was sitting with Chieng at lunch one day and a group of girls approached her. They looked like a pack of wild dogs closing in on an injured zebra. I could see that one of the girls had a pair of scissors in her hand.
‘What are they doing?’ I asked Chieng.
He glanced up and went back to his lunch. ‘Who knows? I don’t try to figure out what girls are thinking, it’s a waste of time.’
Just as he said this, one of the group grabbed Thiko’s braid and the girl with the scissors snipped it off. Thiko let out a cry as a third girl yanked her head round the other way and the girl with the scissors went after her again. Thiko squirmed away, but the scissors nicked her forehead and it started bleeding.
‘They’re going to hurt her,’ I said, getting up and going over, even though I knew I’d be subject to endless ridicule for saying something to these girls. ‘Hey, stop that!’ I yelled.
My shout brought Miss Ayen running up, and the girls scrambled to deny they had anything to do with the blood, or the braid that lay on the ground. But they were ordered to spend the rest of the day sweeping the courtyard.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked Thiko.
She wiped the blood off her face. Her gaze went sadly to the braid on the ground then back to me. ‘Yes I am, Juba. Thank you. Thank you for helping.’
I thought of how most girls would be crying about that lost braid, but Thiko did not. That day, I walked her home from school, and her mother offered us food. Thiko’s father was already sick then, and he died not long after. Thiko doesn’t have brothers or sisters and she and I became good friends from then on, and the gang of girls stayed clear of her.
This morning’s breakfast is roasted sweet potato. Thiko and I eat looking out at the assembly field, where boys are kicking around a football and raising dust. None of them really know how to play properly, they mainly pretend. The sun glows in a cloudless sky.
Bol, an older boy one class ahead of me, leaves the field and walks towards us. He’s muscular and has a thick neck, and likes running into others on the field and making them go flying. If a victim complains he laughs like a satisfied hyena.
Now he gestures to me as if he wants to tell me something. I put my breakfast down and go over and straightaway he pushes me. I stagger backwards but manage to stay on my feet.
‘Hey, leave me alone,’ I say.
Bol moves closer and jabs a finger into my chest. ‘I’ll leave you alone when you leave Thiko alone.’
Thiko jumps up. ‘I want you to leave Juba alone! He’s never done a single thing to you.’
Bol grins and gives me another shove. My mouth goes dry. I don’t want to fight him but I don’t want him to think he can go round picking on me, even if he is older. And what’s his problem with Thiko?
Across the yard I can see Chieng talking with Akol. If I could just get him over here we could fight Bol together.
‘Why don’t you bother someone your own size?’ a new voice says.
It’s Majok, who’s taller than Chieng and me, the same height as Bol.
Bol looks from Majok to me and back to Majok. ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with you,’ he says. Majok smiles and turns like he’s about to walk away, then he spins and kicks out with one of his long legs and catches Bol right in the ribs, keeling him over.
Bol scrambles back up and threatens to tell his teacher. Majok laughs. He’s the blacksmith’s son, and he’s smart and charming and can do no wrong in the teacher’s eyes. If he gets in trouble today, it will be his first time. He shrugs away my thanks and Bol slinks off.
When they’ve both gone Thiko says, ‘I don’t know why older boys are always so mean.’
I think back to when Thiko had her braid cut off. ‘Girls can be just as mean,’ I say. ‘But still, I should have fought him.’ Part of me is glad I didn’t, but a bigger part wishes that someone else didn’t have to take care of the situation for me.
‘He’s taller and bigger than you,’ says Thiko.
Perhaps she’s trying to make me feel better, but I want to be able to stand up for myself. Then I think how if Deng had been here, Bol wouldn’t have done anything in the first place. And that makes me want to rescue my brother from the rebels even more.
No one has said that’s where he is but I have a feeling. South Sudan, which is what we call where I live, is at war with the government, which is in the north. Men in South Sudan who don’t like the government of the north join the rebels and fight for independence. Grandpa has told me that the war has been going since 1955, although it stopped for a while in 1972 and started again in 1983. So I was born into war.
Deng witnessed the killing of our father by government forces, and I believe he might have joined the rebels to avenge his death. Chieng and I have gone to distant villages to ask after Deng but no one has been able to tell us anything.