Dancing with the Dinka

It’s Friday and that means a new story for the week! I wrote this short story based on time I spent in Mundri, Sudan in 2005. It’s a little more upbeat and fun than some of the stories I’ve posted in the past. Hope you enjoy it!

It was a clear night in May. The sixteenth of May to be exact. The moon was shining down from a sky that seemed to be made up of millions of sparkling diamonds. There was no electricity here, but creation did what it did best and provided for them just like it had been doing for countless, untold years.

This was a day of celebration, the day when they remembered their fight for freedom. It has cost all of them something – loved ones, body parts, some their own lives, but it was worth it. Independence was coming. They could feel it just beneath the horizon, like the sun before it rises on a summer morning. Their day was coming, it was just a matter of time. For twenty years they had been fighting against a superior enemy. For twenty years they had faced war, bombings, land mines, famine, and unnamable atrocities. But all that was coming to an end.

He was an American. An outsider. One who didn’t and couldn’t understand all that they had been through. In all actuality he didn’t want to know, his guilty feelings would be too strong. Of course he was too young to have helped for all these years. He was only now reaching an age where he was beginning to understand the world and what he could do to help it. His cultural background had never taught him how to be prepared for something like this. His was a land of plenty where even the poorest were no so poor comparatively.

The people here were poor, sick, war-stricken, but kind and loving.

The children would follow him around throughout the day; they had nothing better to do. There was no schooling for them, and even if they learned, what would they do with it? There was nowhere to go, no way to get out of this life-style. Their government didn’t want them and the only way to leave their own country was illegally. So the children spent their day following the one white man around their small village. They thought it was fun.

He didn’t really know why he was here. He didn’t have any background in medical studies, nor did he know any valuable trades that he could teach to these people to better their lives, but he wanted to help. That’s what it all came down to – he wanted to help.

So he had entered their country illegally in a small airplane that landed on a dirt field.

The people here had no food to eat but mangoes. The few seeds they had planted had still not come to harvest, so all they ate were mangoes. There was an abundance of them, trees filled with ripe, delicious fruit that fell to the ground because the limbs of the trees could not support them. Often the men would take long sticks and knock the fresh fruit from their hiding place high in the thick branches of the trees. Then they would eat, the orange fruit and green skin of the mango a sharp contrast to their dark faces and pearly white teeth.

Years ago this had been a place of substance with a British force stationed here and a school to teach the local people. But war had put an end to all of that and all that remained now were the shells of a beautiful time. Tall palm trees leading to fallen down building with plants growing up where the floors used to be. Old chalkboards still hanging in some of the ex-classrooms. Wide courtyards where students would gather to meet between classes now empty and weed-filled.

But today was a day of celebration. Not a day to see the sad present state of their home, not a day to weep for all that they had lost, but a day to look towards the soon coming future when they be free from the government that oppressed them. Free to make their own decisions and free to live how they saw fit.

There were two tribes that lived in the area where he was working. Very different from each other, with different customs and life-styles. One tribe was the Dinka, the cattle-herders. They followed their cattle wherever they went. Sleeping on the ground and eating what food they could find along the way. The other tribe was the Moru. They stayed in one place making semi-permanent home out of sticks and mud. They planted and harvested and made up the biggest part of the local population.

There was animosity between the two. Just weeks earlier men from one tribe killed a man from the other because he had killed one of their cows. Tension was high, people were nervous, but on this day all feelings were put aside and the people were unified in their celebrations.

Independence field was big enough that members of the two tribes could be there at the same time, but they met on opposite ends of the field.

During the day there had been speeches and song, but the night came and brought with it a time for dancing.

Some of the Moru men had brought drums and flute-like instruments. They gathered together and began to play a pounding rhythm which echoed up into the night sky. People started to sing along and then began to move in a circular pattern around the musicians. They were shaking their arms and hips and their heads were bobbing around on their necks like they were about to fall off. Their circular pattern would speed up and then slow down again depending on the pace of the music. And just when it seemed like they were slowing to a stop the rhythm would pick up again and the frenzied dance would continue.

He stood watching them. He came from a culture that was very egotistic. People tended to laugh at others when they tried something they weren’t good at. Friends humiliated one another and shamed one another, so that after a while people were afraid to try anything new, to try anything outside of their comfort zone. Such was his case. Here he was thousands of miles from his home, with people he just met, who in all honesty wouldn’t care if he could dance or not, and he was still too shy to join in their celebration. He wanted to, but he couldn’t bring himself to join the crowd. He could see the smiles on their faces and hear the joy in their voices, but all he did was stand there and watch.

The drums pounded out a beat that was truly theirs; he tapped his feet and stood with his hands in his pockets.

He glanced up at the night sky and thought of home. People there wouldn’t understand this, they would stand on the sidelines and watch just as he did. They were a culture that was afraid to express themselves for fear of being ridiculed. His was a culture that was too self-conscious, worried about what others thought instead of just living life to the fullest and not caring. He looked back towards the rings of people moving as one and for a moment he wished he was one of them. He didn’t want their life-style, he didn’t want to eat mangoes everyday, he didn’t want to sit around with nothing to do all day, but for one brief moment he wished he could have their freedom. A freedom that despite what everyone did to them, they didn’t care. If someone came along and told them they didn’t know how to dance, they would smile and keep dancing. That was the freedom which was lacking in his life and that was the freedom he wanted to have. He wanted to go home to America and push back that dread of, “what will people think?’ and just live his life the way he wanted to.

But he knew that his fear was too deeply ingrained in who he was. There was no escaping it. He didn’t want to be rejected and even though he knew these people would welcome him into their celebration, they wouldn’t turn him away, he still stood there too scared to join them.

He looked across the field to the other group of people. The herdsman, the wanderers, the nomads, the Dinka. They were a tall people with very dark skin and very thin bodies. Many of the Dinka men were part of the militia that was fighting against the government. Earlier in the day a group of about twenty Dinka men went around the village carrying their weapons. They were dancing and singing and occasionally shooting their guns off into the air as a way of expressing themselves. The Dinka were free in their minds, but they were looking forward to being free as a people.

Their dance was very different from the Moru dance. Not nearly as organized, but just as beautiful. Theirs was a random gathering of people just dancing wherever they felt like it, but they were unified in the song they were singing. He walked towards them, listening to their singing, wondering what it was they were saying.

The women seemed to dance in place, moving their feet very little, but using their hips and upper bodies quite effectively. The men, on the other hand, were dancing a beautiful dance where they held their hand upraised as if thanking their gods and they spun in small circles as they moved any which way around their plot of ground. But the thing that caught his attention the most was the way the men stomped their feet. There was a tight unison to it, they would stomp their feet furiously then as if on an unspoken command they would go back to lightly moving around again. As they stomped their feet the dust would rise and envelop them before settling down again as they slowed their pace.

He walked to within twenty feet of them just as they began another round of stomping and he watched the dust begin to rise. For a moment time stood still and captured one of the men forever in his vision. The man was dressed in camouflage and had a machine gun in one upraised hand. The dust was thick all around him, so he couldn’t see his face but through the dust he could see the stars shining brightly above him. Then in a moment the image was gone. They were dancing lightly again, the dust settled back to the ground. The moment was over.

Why was it men in his country were afraid to express themselves in such a manner. Did it really come down to culture? That they weren’t raised that way, or was it something much deeper?

When he came here, he came expecting to help these people, to give of himself, but since he had arrived the opposite had been taking place. They had been helping him, they had been teaching him. He was learning to be true to himself, to not worry about what other people thought. But there was a big difference between learning it and living it. As he stood there watching the Moru and the Dinka dance he knew this was how he wanted to be living, but to change his way of thinking and to begin living this lifestyle was a totally different story altogether.

The night continued on its way and so did the celebrations. There was rarely a break in the dancing. Just a quick chance for a person to catch their breath before jumping back into the frenzy, it was as if they weren’t going to stop until the sun came up the next morning.

He was feeling tired but didn’t want to leave, he couldn’t leave. How could he go back to the small room where he was sleeping and lie there knowing that just a few hundred yards away – this was going on. Of course, he would still here the pounding drums and probably the rhythmic flute as well. No, he would stay here as long as they did, even if that meant falling asleep amidst the grass, dirt, and dancing bodies.

The dancing Dinka were slowly moving as a whole towards where he was now standing but he found he couldn’t move. His eyes were riveted to the scene that was approaching him. They drew closer and closer and then one of the men reached out and grabbed his shirt and pulled him in.

Everywhere around him people were dancing without a care in the world. To them he wasn’t a white man, he wasn’t an outsider, he was one of their own joining in their celebration of freedom. He looked around – most of the people had their eyes shut as they danced. The pounding feet of the dust dance began again. The Dinka men raised their hands as they stomped their feet. He started to choke on all the dust that was rising around him so he lifted his head up towards the night sky.

Everything seemed to stop. There high above him was the moon shining in all of its glory. It was surrounded by millions of sparkling stars. The air was clean and life was beautiful.

He lowered his head again to where the stench of body odor was strong. The singing didn’t make sense to him, the culture was not his own, but he was becoming like them. All his worries seemed to slip away like a leaf falling off a tree in autumn.

He started to feel the rhythm.

He started to move his body.

He started to hop lightly off the ground.

Then, he started to jump.

Then…he started to dance.

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