A good friend of mine just returned stateside from South Sudan. There, she was working with the Carter Center to track and treat guinea worm. Guinea worm, if you haven’t heard of it, is a nasty parasite that tears up insides and forces its way out through skin when it has finished. The Carter Center has done unprecedented work to nearly eliminate it throughout northern Africa.
My friend lived atop a plateau in rural South Sudan, and she walked daily half-marathons to visit the communities she served. These communities were typically nomadic groups of Toposa people. My friend shared with me some interesting interactions she had with the Toposa.
Photo credit: Tess Bonacci.
According to her, there is no difference between public and private space in Toposa land. Everyone exists in the open, and there are no secrets about what it is like to be human. Some Toposa men walk through the bush naked. The nearest woman wearing a top is a two days’ journey by military vehicle away. Thus, my thin, fully clothed friend stood out. Upon witnessing this ivory-skinned, black-haired, lengthy humanoid; Toposa men and women gathered to whisper.
“Ikile!” It’s a man.
“Aberu!” No, it’s a woman.
Occasionally, a stakeholder in this great debate would casually pass her by and strategically brush a hand over her crotch. Awaa! Evidence gathered. Women would stand close to her and ponder to themselves, “ililim…” it’s cold. The same women might firmly grasp her breasts. Further evidence! My friend’s only response was to return the assault and laughter would ensue: two women clutching each other’s chests, comfortably embracing strange proof of alikeness.
My friend spent a lot of time walking great distances. She did her best to avoid the sun during the day and the mosquitoes at night. At times, her ankles and joints swelled to uncomfortable proportions. She also contracted malaria.
When malaria hit, my friend was coincidentally on her way to New Orleans for a brief vacation from work. My friend shared with me some interesting interactions she had with the Americans.
She arrived a sweaty mess and was ushered into a quarantined hospital room. Hospital staff donned head-to-toe plastic suits before approaching her. They placed bags of ice on her body to slow down her fever of 105 degrees. Her teeth chattered and her body shook. One nurse assured her not to worry because she was “in good hands,” and that they were “reading and learning about malaria right now!”
At the height of my friend’s fever, death crossed her mind. Just in case, she instructed a friend via SMS to pass along last messages to friends and old lovers–but only if she did die. She wondered if this was the end, but she certainly hoped not. Already accustomed to life in open hills and savanna, the private hospital room felt like an alien environment. The room was too small, too fluorescent, and too manufactured. If she must die, it ought to be out in the world.
At one point, a man and a woman stood on each side of her bed. They had come to discuss her situation. My friend recalls that they looked like Tommy Hilfiger models posing as resident doctors. Mid-conversation, the woman farted. Talking halted. My friend looked at the man. She looked at the woman. They looked at each other, then they both looked at my friend. She wanted to shout and proclaim her innocence, vulnerable and feeble though she was. But, eventually the conversation restarted. Any strange alikeness was comfortably ignored; secrets about what it is like to be human maintained.