Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Thursday, July 31, 2008

En Route to Syndey

Our plane from Brisbane to Sydney has been delayed, so I thought I'd start writing some about the past two days with Michael's family and begin to organize my thoughts.

When we first arrived, we were impressed by the sheer size of the house.  So it seems like Australia is a good choice for the family to be resettled in after all.  I doubt whether they would be placed in such pleasant surroundings in the States.You enter the house through a wood fence that is about 100 yards from the front door and to get to the front door you have to walk through a yard and down a path.   It's more like a compound than a single family house and Michael said that it's a good house for the family because it has grass and places to play and is removed back from the road.  The birds here are tropical.  We saw a couple of magpies around the house--they are big black birds something like ravens--and some other birds that are white and red with crested tufts.  Brisbane is like a big outdoor bird sanctuary.  You can see these red parakeet birds and white cockatoos just flying around.  After the emotional explosion of Michael seeing his family for the first time, we dragged our bags to the entrance and walked inside and sat down.  The inside of the house is large with many rooms and almost a separate little guest house through a door attached to the main house that was set up for Michael to stay in, with its own bedroom and kitchen.  

Michael's mother, Adior, or Maman Majok (the Dinka call their mothers by the name of the their first born child, and in this case, it is Michael) had gone to a lot of trouble to make Michael comfortable.  In the center of the room was a big double bed with a yellow sheet on it embroidered with flowers and the same matching patterns on the pillows and chair cushions. It was simple and beautiful and clearly adorned with much anticipation and love.  The room, as is the rest of the house, was stark and clean and fresh.  Noticeably, there was nothing extraneous around, no nicknacks or children's toys or pictures, a shocking reminder that Adior and her family had lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp for the past decade and had just come to Brisbane in January.

Even as we entered the house, Adior was still weeping.  Michael had been sitting down next to her but then he got up for a moment and she looked utterly forlorn as if she had lost him all over again. I sat down beside her then and took her arm and hugged her and asked her what she was thinking.  Even before she answered, I knew what she was going to say.  Afterward, I checked with Teddi and Ellen and Josh and Rick and they knew too.  It was one of those moments when the air was so electrified that her words just hung there before she said them and hearing them was verification.  She said, ''The years, the years," meaning that she would not be able to recapture all those years from the time Michael was five years old until now, notwithstanding Michael's brother, David, who was only three years old when their village was razed and with whom Adior has not yet had the opportunity to reunite.

Despite the tragic amplifications of Michael's life, his mother's life is the ultimate tragedy. Michael's future lies ahead of him, but for his mother, all is lost.  And don't forget that her tragedy gets multiplied by the thousands.  The devastation that occurred was systematic, village by village.  Michael's mother's father had been a chief and Adior grew up as the first daughter of a powerful man.  Nyankurdit, Adior's mother, and one of the wives of that chief, sadly still lives in Kakuma.

It was going to become intrusive for us to stay at the house, so after we were served tea and cookies, we started to bring out all the gifts we had brought for the family. This was a magical moment. The first gift I presented were the scarves my thirteen year old neice, Emma Phillips, knitted for Dut and Riak.   The scarves are very colorful and the children loved them. Aweil grabbed one and wrapped it around her neck.  We have some pictures of the children playing with the scarves, which they proceeded to do for the rest of the time we stayed in the house.  In the pictures, the children are so gorgeous that they look like models in a GAP ad, which gives you a clue about our culture.  When Michael gave his mother the gold Fossil watch and the earrings she was clearly moved. She just kept staring down at the gifts on her lap.  Then I gave Adior a bag of Ahava products we bought for her and explained how each of them get used.  We also brought a goodie bag for Aweil filled with hair products and lip balms.

Then we took a group picture together and hugged goodbye for the time being to leave Michael in private with his family and for us to go check in to our hotel.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tedra's Testimonial

In a checkerboard pattern, the Kuch family and our own dragged our luggage up the brick path to their new yellow-tan Australian home.  The house was very open and looked as if they had just moved in.  The only thing that was missing were cardboard boxes full of their possessions.  Then I realized that coming from a refugee camp, what sort of possessions could they even have?  Barely any.  The mother urged us to sit down on the blue couches decorated with printed doilies and pillows.  The shy brothers stood around us and Awiel perched herself on the other side of the room.  After we were settled, Michael went to retrieve the huge bag recently purchased from an army surplus store.  My mother sat next to Michael's mother, who was silently crying, and started rubbing her arm, whispering things like "You have raised such an amazing son," wondering if his mother's nods meant she could actually understand what my mother was saying.  When Michael came back in and sat down, she immediately threw her arms around him in a heap.  She then collected herself by going into the other room and wiping away her tears with the gigantic shaw she wore, one of the several layers she was sporting.  Tea and cookies were served, and the family was able to produce laughs and smiles.  There was definitely some awkwardness, as their Dinka and our English were not easily traded.  We were surprised, however, about the amount of English the younger children knew.  After taking a family picture of the Kuch's, the first complete family picture they have ever had, we did another round of hugs and they watched as our taxi took off, leaving Michael to stand with his family for the first time.

Measureless Magnitude

Before we knew it, we were standing at the fence before the house at 597 Moggill Road waiting for Michael's mother to come out.  We heard someone on the other side fiddling with the latch, then the side of her face, then her whole face wet with tears rushing toward Michael to embrace him.  She hid her face from us, too shy for us to witness her tears.  She buried her face in his face. She would not let go.  We watched.  We stood there.  We imagined another person beside her--Michael's father, then his image faded, and it was Michael and his mother again, finally together.Then Michael's sister, Aweil,  came out and Michael's mother made room for her to embrace Michael. Then Awiel let go of Michael and made room for her mother again. Then Awiel approached each one of us--Rick, Tedra, Josh, Ellen and me--and embraced each one of us tenderly.  Then Biar, Michael's seventeen year old brother came out, red-eyed, weeping and ran toward Michael, then Michael's youngest brothers, Dut, aged 7, and Riak, Aged 11--all born in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Then the brothers made room for the mother again and each of them came toward us and embraced us, sweetfully, thankfully.


Rick and I arrived in LA on the 28th. Tedra was already here--she'd been living with Rick's nephew and niece, Glenn and Jen for the month--and Josh arrived from his Summer Discovery program in Ann Arbor the next day with Michael.  Jen was so kind to drive me to Michael's hotel early the next morning and we picked him up and took him back to their house.  After we readjusted everyone's suitcases trying to make them lighter for the very stringent airline requirements, under 50 pounds, we took Michael to see Hollywood.  This was mainly a car trip because of his knee injury.  We drove to the this mall where you can get a direct view of the Hollywood sign and we stood on the street with clumps of other tourists taking pictures of all of  us standing in front of it, including Jen's children, Olivia and Aidan.  It was especially poignant to watch Michael and Aidan interact in lieu of Michael's reunion journey because Aidan is only six years old--close to the age Michael was the last time he saw his mother. Although as Michael pointed out, his cultural upbringing was so different than an American's upbringing that although he was only five years old when he began his 1200 mile trek he was much more prepared and mature.  As a Dinka, he walked miles every day to follow his uncles to the cattle camp outside their village.  He was already an apprentice learning how to hunt and to use a spear. Try as I might I can't imagine little Aidan even carrying a spear without hurting himself-- or someone else!

After we took those pictures in front of the Hollywood sign we walked down to the Chinese Theater and stepped in the footprints of the stars.  That was fun and also daunting to find out that the icons I grew up, such as John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe are already losing their glimmer.  Neither Michael nor Josh knew who John Wayne was and I think the only reason Josh knew who Shirley Temple was is because my Dad used to subject him to endless marathons and to Little Rascals.

But the more important reason for driving out to Hollywood was to go the Army/Navy store on Century Blvd. to buy Michael a new suitcase.  Anastasia had taken him suitcase shopping before he left, and although the big nylon bag with wheels that she helped him find fit the magnificence of gifts for his family and extended family, when Josh picked it up to move closer to the door in preparation for our taxi ride to the airport it tore in half.  Panicked, we thought we'd have to spring for another large bag, when Jen had the great idea of buying a cloth duffle at a Army/Navy store.  It turned out that the closest one was in Hollywood, so while Michael, Rick, Teddi, Olivia, and Aiden waited for us on the Sidewalk of the Stars, Jen and I rushed the four blocks down Century to buy the bag.  We saw exactly what we needed--a big kahki regulation duffle for only $20.00.  It fit all of Michael's gifts with room to go!  And it even fell within the airline's baggage requirement and Michael wasn't charged any extra money for it as he was on the way to CA.

Teddi's Michigan friends who live in LA--Lara and Brett--came for dinner at Jen and Glenn's and gave us a send off, with one freak misfortune:  Lara hit the brick wall of Jen and Glenn's neighbor pulling out.  Her car wasn't even scratched and she was fine, but the wall did get pretty damaged--that and the news the day before about the Quantas explosion on a plane en route from London to Australia, made us only slightly a little bit jittery.

Friday, July 25, 2008

This night is crazy because we're leaving tomorrow.  How is it possible to pack for winter in Australia when it is over ninety degrees outside?  I had to rifle through my closet for my winter coat, which is not something I wanted to be doing in August.  The wool is super itchy.  I didn't have the heart to look for my scarf and gloves.  

Besides the cruelty of traveling into Winter, something else happened.  Michael hurt his knee playing soccer and will probably need to get an operation when we return.  I just emailed Qantas Airlines to order him a wheelchair.  We had debated whether his uncle should pick us up at the airport or if we should go to Michael's family in a taxi.  It would be great to get picked up at the airport, but if Michael's mother is tempted to go along, then the first sight she would get of Michael would be in a wheelchair.  That's how we made the decision to go to them by taxi.  Michael bought a carved wood cane to help him walk, which would be a little better for him to use than the wheelchair.  Either way, it is a pity that this happened right before our visit.
Fortunately, Michael's mother knows that he has been playing soccer on a Sudanese team in Philadelphia and on his college team and that he was even awarded MVP in 2006 when Chestnut Hill College won their league championship.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Two weeks to go!

July 16, 2008 
I'm getting so excited about the trip that I can't sleep. I lie awake until 3 AM with my heart beating fast or skipping beats. I've had this problem ever since I was a child.  When I get really excited about something I either stop being able to sleep or come down with a fever. I haven't gotten a fever yet, but I will if I can't manage to get enough sleep!

Yesterday Michael and I went shopping for him to pick out some gifts for his mother and sister. We met at the handbag counter at Macy's because I thought we would buy his mother a beautiful Lucky bag.  The problem was that they were all too expensive--$175.00 and up.  So we looked at some jewelry instead.  Michael picked out a beautiful pair of dangling gold earrings with little flowers on them for his mother.  Then we bought her a gold Fossil watch.  Jewelry seemed like a better gift anyway.  Michael did buy a Lucky shoulder book bag for his sister.  It is canvas and leather with colorful flowers on it.  His sister, who is 15 years old, should really love it!

After we finished shopping, I drove Michael to his car and we got to talk some.  I've been reading a book on the Dinka, with the old-fashioned title: Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan, by C.G. Seligman that was published in 1930 and I wanted to ask Michael about one of the Dinka beliefs Seligman discusses.  The belief is that certain clans speak of animals as their ancestors, not in a Darwinian sense, but in the sense of actually being a member of their family, kind of a half-human, half-animal relation.  You see this in a lot of the Dinka folk tales.  Characters in the tales collected by Francis Deng in his book, Dinka Folktales, often have half-animal parents or siblings. 
Seligman reports that each clan has a special relationship with an animal and says that it is customary for them to avoid eating their totem animal and instead to show it reverence.  I asked Michael if this is true and he told me that his clan, Juet, holds a snake as their totem animal. He said that when he was a child, snakes were free to crawl around in his hut and onto people, up their arms and onto their shoulders and around their necks, and they never bite anyone.  He said it used to really freak him out and that he was afraid of snakes, but that these snakes never harmed anyone in his family.  They might harm people outside his clan.  

Seligman talks about a Dinka man sprinkling dust on a snake's back in the forest for fear that the snake might think he is unfriendly and try to bite him.  If the snake did get angry, then the man himself would die before thinking of killing the snake.  He writes that "this man's children show the same reverence for the snake as their father." (Seligman 143).