Wau, Western Bahr El Ghazal, South Sudan
“But you don’t have to fast when you are sick.”
Adinani and I were talking about Ramadan one evening as paling light washed the Water for South Sudan compound in soft orange.
He said, “If you are sick or very old, then maybe instead of fast, you give food to one or two people who are poor and can’t afford their own.”
“Ah I see, it’s about sacrifice. If you can’t fast by food because it’s too dangerous for your health, then, you can find another way?” I asked.
“Yes, it is exactly like that. And also if you are traveling you don’t have to either.”
“Really?” I asked. I was surprised by the lump forming in my throat.
“Yes, of course. If you are traveling to a different place, then you are naturally sacrificing. You miss your family, your type of food, your home, especially if you are alone. It might be unhealthy for you to fast because it is a new place with new customs.”
I stared off into the distance. I felt myself welling up, but I squeezed the chair and swallowed. I had not set out to fast when I came to South Sudan, but Adinani’s words brought something up in me.
“What do you miss from your home when you are out in the field?” I asked him.
He gave a laugh, “When we are out in the field, we must leave everything at home.” Then he paused for a minute and reconsidered. “I miss my family. My children they sometimes forget who I am when I come home.”
“They are still young.” I reassured him. “They will remember in a couple years. Then they will miss you and look forward to your return.”
“I also miss matooke, it is the banana, but not sweet like a banana.”
“Plantain? You mean the big long green ones?”
“Yes, that is it. I love it. It is our traditional food in Uganda, our staple. We cook it many ways. When I miss it, I know I am missing home.”
We sat together watching the compound light change from bright orange to dusky grey. A brightening waxing crescent held post above.
“What do you miss?” he asked me.
I thought about all the things I missed. The list was too long, American food, or at least a variety. We ate the same thing every day, sweet rice for breakfast and lentil soup or tomato soup over a flour mash or bread for lunch and dinner. If we are lucky, we might have a goat and there will be meat in the tomato soup. There are no toilets in the compound either. Every morning, after breakfast, I walk alone out of the compound where our well is, past the children who still have not tired of running to me chanting Kawaja kawaja, the mother who waits on the path pointing to her mouth asking for food, the father and his son who spend all day making bricks in the hot sun. I walk about a quarter mile until the path gets thinner and the bush becomes thicker. Then I veer to the left to find a tree or large bush and hope that my quads don’t get tired before I am finished.
We always sit in the same stained tan resin chairs outside wherever the shade is. There are no soft couches here. In the afternoons when the sun is the hottest, there is no wind and everything is still, we sit underneath the shed trying to stay cool. The day before, the compound crew had finished early and sat under the shed with us. Everyone passed the time by joking and telling stories. As the conversation got louder, each person next to me moved their chair one by one closer to the circle where the others were speaking Arabic until I was left to myself, an outsider in every way imaginable.
“I miss toilets.” I said. Adinani looked at me and we both burst out laughing.
“Yes, I miss toilets too.”
“But do you have people you miss back in your home?” he asked me.
“Yes I have many friends who I am very close to. And I miss my siblings and my boyfriend and my dog.”
He laughed. “You miss your dog?”
“Yes, he’s been a constant for me. I’ve had him eleven years. He’s been with me through a lot of change.”
I swallowed again. I was starting to understand what Adinani meant when he said we must leave everything at home. There were too many things for me to miss. There’s a loneliness particular to solo travelers that if I allowed myself to truly consider there in the waning sunlight, I might have cried sobs.
Earlier that afternoon I wanted to wash my clothes while everyone was out. I had already set myself up with a chair and the wash basin over by the clothesline. Then I walked over to the cache of jerry cans that Aketch, our compound manager, keeps filled throughout the day. When I tried to pick one up, Aketch yelled at me and came running to stop me from carrying the heavy water myself. I put it down and let him take two for me. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to carry my own jerry cans in the hot sun. Then I was immediately washed in guilt. The day before, when we were testing a well, I watched a young girl maybe about nine years old pick up a jerry can that was almost her size and put it in a wheelbarrow along with two others she had already filled. Then I saw her brace herself as she picked up the handles and pushed the wheelbarrow back to her house.
“And I miss hamburgers. Maybe its not a staple food, but it's familiar to me.”
Adinani laughed. The lump in my throat started to go away. The sun had fallen below the horizon. During Ramadan, that would signal the breaking of the fast.
“I was in in Cairo during Ramadan. At just about twilight after the sun went down, a city of millions eerily slowed to a full stop, the lanterns went on, and everybody sat down to feast together. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was magical.”
“Yes, the movement of the sun is a signal for everyone to come together.”
Adinani walked over the bag of tamarinds and gave me a couple. We heard the familiar beep of the Land Rover outside the compound. The spell was over. The moon was high as I walked back to my room to get my soap for bathing.