Armed with a torch

Dried gourd bow with beaded cross motif
Dried gourd bowl with beaded cross motif.
Inside of the gourd bowl. Stitches because it was broken in transit.
Inside of the gourd bowl.

During our second interview for the book, Otholi showed me the bowl, cup and jug,  decorated with beadwork by his wife Ariet, that his family had brought from Ethiopia. He explained that most of the motifs are crosses because they are Christians. I asked him about the other pattern, some sort of arrow. He laughed and said with admiration, ‘Women are very creative. If they think of some pattern, they can make it.’

Plastic water jug with cross motif.
Anuak beadword around a plastic cup.

Ariet had packed these items when their family fled the slaying of the Anuak people in Gambella.They stayed away from  paths and roads, hiding as they went, and thought they were alone, but found three to four thousand other Anuak in the bush.

‘Mainly women and children … because men don’t want to be called cowards, they don’t want to run, they just want to go back.’ Some found guns and went back to avenge the deaths of their uncles and brothers but Otholi said to Ariet, ‘There is no point I leave you by yourself to go with the kids. We can go together.’

Their journey seeking safe haven took them through Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. Women and children were very vulnerable in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, just miles from the Somali border, where people smuggled guns into the camp, where Christian women who did not adhere to the dress code of the predominantly Muslim Somali refugees, were looked upon as loose women and treated accordingly.

Otholi was trained by the UNHCR and the Kenyan government as a community peace keeper and given a powerful torch, to shine light in dark places, and a walkie talkie to the Kenyan police for situations beyond what he could deal with himself. By night, he patrolled their quarters. By day he walked with the women to collect firewood and to buy food. He accompanied the children on their 30 minute walk to school and back. ‘We men always had to be with our women to protect them,’ he said of those days.

Otholi with the eating and drinking utensils decorated by his wife, Ariet.
Otholi with the eating and drinking utensils decorated by his wife, Ariet.

Australian women don’t live in refugee camps but the statistics say that on average, one woman a week is murdered by her partner or ex-partner and one in three women experience domestic violence. How we need men with good, strong hearts, men who know that manhood is not in aggression, or revenge, or shouting the loudest, or hitting the hardest, but in protecting the weak and working on behalf of the vulnerable, and even, perhaps, to speak with admiration of the women in their lives, and to cherish them.


The land was really good

Otholi (far right) and family
Otholi (far right), with his wife Ariet beside him, and his 3 children and one grandchild.

‘The land was really good,’ says Otholi.

He smiles as he says this, enunciating the words slowly, drawing them out, lingering on his memory of the land, the fertile Gambella basin between Ethiopia and South Sudan. On this land Otholi and his people – the indigenous Anuak – cultivated bananas, mangoes, paw paw, maize, and sorghum. If they felt like eating wild meat, they went out to the bush to hunt. The land abounded with antelope, gazelle, buffalo, and giraffe.

When light-skinned highlanders from central Ethiopia saw that this land in the south-west was good, they settled there, and said, ‘Ah, this is Ethiopia land, but the people do not belong to Ethiopia.’ Nonetheless, the Anuak welcomed the highlanders as brothers and lived peacefully with them for many years.

The story of Otholi’s displacement from Gambella starts with the discovery of oil in 2001. Gambella’s regional leaders opposed the national government’s decision to refine the oil in another state. With the benefit of hindsight, Otholi’s people have coined a saying: Finding oil in your land is like finding a cancerous tumour – there will be a lot of problems.

On the 13th of December 2003, a few road workers were found dead. Due to their opposition to aspects of the oil development plan, the Anuak were blamed for the crime even though there were no eye witnesses. In retaliation, Anuak men were hunted down and shot. 425 people were killed that day. Around 4,000 Anuak men, women and children, fled into the bush, where they walked for five days before settling in South Sudan. That was the beginning of Otholi’s journey and search for safety.

At the end of our conversation, I told Otholi that I would like him to describe these places to me so that I can imagine them and he said, ‘I have the memory of my land. I just call it my homeland. I still have the memory of what happened to us and that’s why every year, we sit down on December the 13th to let other people know that it is a very sad and unforgettable day for us. We forgive but we don’t forget. We forgive those that have done it, but we don’t forget.’

His speech slows down and for the first time during our conversation, his eyes redden. Silence. Then in a barely audible voice, he says, ‘It was horrible. We lost very, very important people to our community. So…yeap…thank you.’

And I wonder if it is a thank you for listening, or for asking, or for remembering with him and his people, the Anuak.