Writings / Creative Non-Fiction

The Things We Carried

Julian Okot Bitek

         We walked. We walked everwhere. We walked from Apac to Atiak, over the hilly outcrops at Kilak and Ato, passing through Anaka and Pabbo, across the Achwa River with its furious rapids in the wet season that boil over black rocks with steamy fog that seemed to shroud the whole country.  We passed through Pader, Kitgum, Palabek, Padibe, Namokora and Labwor, mapping the breadth of northern Uganda, round and round, like a starved hornet over a bush.  We traced the Nile through to the unmanned border at Nimule.

            In Sudan, we walked through to Torit, Gong, Luwudu, Palutaka; settled for a while in Nicitu, Juba, Lalaa and Rubanga Tek before leaving for the Imatong moutains.  We crouched through forested areas, bountiful gardens and open grassland.  Sometimes we made do with caves. Other times we made fire by the river bank for a single night, never two.  Easy to say that distances are nothing when you have stories, company and a light heart.  It was a long way away and it wasn’t always light.
            We carried everything.  We carried our own luggage on our heads.  We carried our babies on our backs snugly tied with a cloth.  We carried the babies of the women who could not carry their own children on our hips.  If we didn’t have a baby to carry, we carried other things on our backs.  We carried two basins each, on top of whatever else we carried.  We carried AK47s slung over our shoulders with leather belts.  We could never put the guns down.  We carried food – millet, corn, pigeon peas, smoked meat, sesame seeds, beans, goats, sorghum, dura, dried meat, lentils, canned fish.  We carried sugar and salt.  We carried water.  We carried luggage for our husbands and commanders.  We carried our thoughts.  We carried twenty litre debes of oil.  We carried soap, toothpaste and face cream that was looted along the way.  We carried the thoughts of our families and the good times we’d known at home.  We carried the the weight of the sun as it bore on our necks and faces. We carried what luck we had left, because those who run out of it lost their lives.  We carried the spirits of our forefathers and the prayers we’d learned at home.  We recalled the rosary in our heads so that we could remember.  We recited Our Father, Glory Be, Hail Mary.  We called the names of our family members in our heads so that we’d not forget that they had once lived.  We believed that that our families were dead.  We knew that our families were dead or they’d have come to rescue us.  We also knew that our families were dead because we’d seen them dead before leaving.  We prayed that our relatives we had left didn’t try to rescue us or they’d be hurt.  We carried pain in our hearts and in our shoulders.  We carried what remained of our own selves. 
            We carried guilt.  We carried the burden of having taken part in the hurting; for kicking the one boy until he was dead; for taking turns at stepping on another dead boy’s head – we had to do it in the company of menacing faces and sharply bayoneted guns waving each of us to take our turns.
            We carried our hurt selves, our defiled selves, our stained selves, the selves that had been raped over and everywhere there was an opening.  We carried the innocence that remained of our bodies.  We carried luggage.  We carried burdens, questions, no answers.  We carried ulcers and chests that still burn like a fire inside.  We carried gunshot wounds that sometimes healed into tiny scars and sometimes branded us like animals. We accepted the keloids that formed on our backs and forearms and massaged them gently when we had a chance.  We stopped wincing as we walked through the long, dark green elephant grass with arms and legs exposed the the sharp blades that sliced our skin at every turn. 
            We carried hope in our hearts, sometimes very little, too little to stretch out for days, weeks, months, years, a decade, a decade and a half, more, but we did.  We carried the girls that we were in the smallest part of our brains – the girls that still refuse to come out to play with innocence.  We carried them along anyway.  Sometimes we laughed. 
            We were the ting-ting, the yangus, the carriers, the young ones, the kuruts, the children, the girls, the daughters of people who carried us in their hearts all that time.  They carried us in their hearts for naught.  We wouldn’t exist anymore, we couldn’t.  Not as they knew us.  Not as they’d loved us.  Except, perhaps, for the selves in us that remained intact that no one could see.  We carried babies in our wombs and babies in our arms.  Through the babies, we carried our families and what we remembered of them.  A nose here, a smile there, a forehead, fingers and a giggle that was familiar.  We carried scars from beatings, scars from lashes, open sores from broken gumboots in which the sand would grate against our feet as we traversed borders, crossed streams, and fought the boughs in the jungle.  We carried hoes.  We carried seeds.  We sang.  We sang in our heads.  What a friend we have in Jesus/ All our sins and griefs to bear/  All because we do not carry /Everything to God in prayer.  We carried everything to God in prayer.
            We couldn’t deserve this, but then again, this was our home and we were meant to be here.  How could we explain it otherwise?  How could we have been chosen to be hit on the chest with the butt of a gun, be stomped on with gumboots for minor reasons, or any reason at all?  How could we explain it any other way, except by accepting that we were chosen for this?  Were we?
            No one came to get us.  The white nun, Sister Rakele, came to get her girls only.  The girls from St. Mary’s High School. Just them.  And at that, not all of them.  The Pope prayed for the girls from St. Mary’s.  The media wrote about the girls from St. Mary’s.  The Holy quarelled about the girls from St. Mary’s and guarded them jealously.  The government of Uganda searched for the girls of St. Mary’s.  Not us.  For sure, not us.  No one came for us.  Nobody. 
            We would never return – not the same way and not the same people.  We remained intact in the way we looked at each other, mirroring pain and ocassional laughter.  We carried ourselves from town to town, country to country, through mountain, grassland, across the Nile, Aswa, Kit, Agago, Unyama, Atebi and many other streams.  We walked through forest and desert and came home to nothing.
            So we waited.  First, we waited for the nightmares to end.  We waited for our fathers to stop committing suicide on account of us missing, or on account that we came back, not the same as we’d left, not the same at all.  We waited for the haunting, the cen, to rise up like a mist and dissipate into the brilliant blue sky, because we couldn’t fly away.  We had no wings, so we had to stay.  We waited for help.  We got the help in form of letters, money, sewing classes, clothing, therapy and sometimes an empathetic touch on the shoulder without any discernible hesitation.  We waited for the embrace of family and former friends.  Sometimes we got it, but sometimes we didn’t.  We waited for the voices to stop howling in the night.  We waited for silence.  We waited for peace. 
            We waited for the children to grow.  We watched them toddling, walking, going to school eventually, but not able to shrug off that invisible layer of something that had been layered on them from over there.  We tried to scrub off the cen, but it doesn’t wash off.  It requires ritual, it requires prayer and patience, so we continued to wait.  We waited for time to undo the paternities of the children, for them to stop asking about who their fathers were, where they were, how come they did not visit, were they not loved.  We waited for the children to forget their early childhood experiences, the insistence that they sleep with their gumboots close by, just in case they had to run away, to get away from the gunshots and bombs in the middle of the night.  We waited to forget it all.  

            We did not ask for this.  None of us did.  Did our families imagine the things that happened to us?  Would any men love us after all this? Could our mothers love us after all this?  Could anybody?  We could not even think of the complete rejection we would face on returning home.  Some of our mothers would not look at us.  They’d moved on.  They’d re-married.  They’d had other children.  At first, we thought we saw love mingle with relief in our fathers’ eyes as tears run down their faces.  But over time, our fathers started to mutter under their breaths – that they did not bring up their daughters that way, to have children like that, to be wild like animals.  Money for school fees?  School fees from me?  Go get school fees from the men who fathered those children!  Our fathers, and our fathers’ own words.  
            We waited for normal and normal never showed.  We missed going to school.  We missed classes.  We knew that our classmates had gone on with their education and that this was no education.  We carried the knowledge that some people would become big people and sit in big offices and make big decisions.  Not us.  Ours was a different kind of schooling.  Our schooling was the carrying of things and pictures in our heads.  We carried the image of the passion fruit tree at one of the homes in Sudan where the men sat smoking.  The men who smoked under the passion fruit tree were Sudanese.  They were not with us.  The men who smoked under the passion fruit tree fought Arabs.  The men who smoked sat under the passion fruit tree with the people who had died of cholera and had been thrown under the passion fruit tree in Sudan.  The men sat on top of the logged pile of dead Arab and smoked.  We walked on.  
            We took this knowledge to the reception offices in Gulu and sat with it, waiting for treatment, waiting for reconcilement, repatriation, decisions, assistance, waiting for someone, anyone to accept us. We carried hopelessnes.  We carried grief, sadness, insults like tropical rain on tin roofs, spittle that flew from the mouths of the men as they shouted at us, threatened to burn down our houses, to kill us, they say, as their families had been killed by the rebels.  Sometimes full spit hawked from the back of the throat and hurled at us. It was cold when it hit us and slimy when we wiped it off.  We knew all this as we waited with our lips stuck together, dry like our hands, grey like dust on our feet, the only soft being the kanga that we used to carry the babies; soft and worn out.

About The Author


Juliane Okot Bitek is the daughter of a poet father and a story-teller mother.  She was born to exiled parents in Kenya, came of age in Uganda and now lives in Canada.  Juliane’s work has won writing awards in Canada, the United States and Europe.  She is an essayist, free-lance writer, and poet.  Her work has been anthologized and published widely in literary magazines, on-line and in print.  Juliane has been an invited poet at the International Poetry Festivals of Medellin, Colombia (2008) and Granada, Nicaragua (2009).  She continues to write and speak about issues of home, homeland and diaspora. Juliane graduated from the University of British Columbia (M.A English, 2009) and is currently writing a biography and completing her second collection of poetry.  The first one, Words in Black Cinnamon (Delina Press) was published in 1998. She lives with her family in Vancouver but still dreams of a place to call home.

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