Who Will
Be Fed?

A. A. Gill
Each of these little groups comes from one village --- the women are responsible for the food but the headman chooses who will be fed. There is a lot of shouting and gesticulating, and the process is meticulous and desperately slow. But the Dinka have nowhere else to be. They stand in the hot sun and wait: it is not so much stoical or fatalistic as a wom-out realism. Each of the women carries a small brush made from sticks to sweep the spilled grain. They are loaded with twenty-eight days' subsistence and, balanced as finely as tightrope walkers, they slowly move off into the bush, their small, naked children trailing behind. They will return to their villages if they still exist, or find a spot under a tree. An aid worker says, "I wonder what those women have to do to be chosen and how much of that food goes to the army." As the interminable business grinds on, I lie in the shadow of a termite hill with a group of men. They smile and nod. I hand out the last of my cigarettes, we sit for ten companionable minutes, watching. The choosing and rejecting, the spilling of seed. There is a light touch on my shoulder, and a man about my age in a shirt that is just dirty ribbons, with bony elbows and ribs like the ruts in a baked road, leans forward and smiles. The taut parchment skin wrinkles over his cheeks, his eyes are the color of weak tea. He holds out the little gourd that is slung round his neck: would I like a drink? It is a small epiphany of sorts, to be offered hospitality from the very back of the earth's queue. Think of all the starving in Africa. It was as if the Good Samaritan had been offered succor by the man overtaken by thieves, and it was the most gravely humbling gesture. I was glad to be wearing sun-glasses. I didn't trust myself to speak, just shook my head and dragged deeply on my cigarette.

Biblical analogies come easily here, the exodus of the Dinka, the flight across the desert, the ancient heroic look of them, a chosen people. Every so often a flash of metal spikes the eye: invariably it is a silver cross. Unbidden, I remember the Sermon on the Mount. I never thought I would actually see it played out quite so literally or with such grace. "You are the salt of the earth." "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

I was dreading dinner: how do you eat in a promise of famine? Actually, it is not difficult; not to eat would be a silly act of self-mortification. And we are hungry. The relief camp was a collection of little tents set behind a low palisade of thorn bushes; on the other side the starving stood and watched as we shared out the contents of bags: trail mix, repellent muesli bars, apples, chicken legs, packed lunch from the Norfolk Hotel with weirdly surreal lamb sandwiches cut into triangles that Paul said reminded him of childhood. There was a bit of rather good boiled goat. ITN provided a bottle of whiskey and told with glee of the American network crew who had set up a grand tent with an awning and a collapsible dining table, napery and candles, and toasted each other with claret while the Dinka stood in a silent circle. It was the French nurse's birthday: she slumped exhausted into a chair and ate a boiled egg. When next you hear someone talk sneeringly about the high moral ground, remember the field workers of MSF, the only charity to have staff actually living in Bahr al Ghazal. These are volunteers who work because MSF pays the lowest subsistence salaries of any international charity, not despite it. Who have to be rotated every two months because no one can bear it for longer but who sometimes have to because they can't be pulled out. Who have to sleep in their shoes with a water bottle because their camp may be overrun. Because if you do find yourself living at the very pinnacle of the high moral ground, there are any number of people who would slit your throat for a moral and a watch.

We turn in. I haven't brought a tent so I lie under a mosquito net. Sleeping out in the African bush under a sickle moon is one of the most aweinspiring experiences --- as long as you have a choice, of course. Men have lain here in the hot wind looking at the stars for as long as there have been men. This is where we come from, this swathe of thin earth, brittle grass and thorn stretching from the Rift Valley to the filigree marshes at the source of the Blue Nile. This is our ancestral home. The sour-sweet smoky body smell of Africa drifts on the breeze. The cooking fires of the Dinka nicker like earthed comets. There is a sound of crickets and a distant drumming and the exhausted wailing of hungry children. And the temazepam-induced snores of an ITN reporter. Just as I was dozing off I turned over and came face to face with a wild beast. I made a noise not unlike a stuck heifer. The bone-questing dog and I were frightened in equal measure. Paul in the fastness of his tent laughed so hard his film rattled.

Southern Sudan is the line in the sand where Arab and black Africa meet, but it is also the place where the First World, north world, blue-eyed haves meet the Third World, south world, dark-eyed have-nots. It is the front line, the raw edge of our conscience. I had expected to feel guilty, angry, horrified and depressed, and in varying degrees, I am. But the abiding sense is one of dignity. The dignity of a Dinka standing patiently in the sun and the workers who risk so much to help them. It is not that suffering is dignified, it is that here the fat and panoply of life is stripped away to reveal a fragile but resilient shared humanity. When I got home, I tried to explain to my young daughter where I had been and what I had seen. "Are they dying?" she asked. Yes. "Where do they bury them?" Where do we bury them? In Monday's rubbish, in the commercial break, in the turned page and the changed subject in Sunday lunch and under the prune stones on the side of your plate.

In the gray light before dawn I woke and saw a line of women pass silently in single file with calabashes on their heads going to collect water from the muddy hollows of a drying river. They looked like so many ghosts. As the sun rose it caught the shadows of a thousand bare footprints in the dust. A mother was washing her son. He stood in an enamel basin, his arms raised, and gently, with a tin cup and infinite tenderness, she sloughed the dust off him. In the golden light, he glowed and shone like the child in an icon.

--- From AA Gill Is Away
© 2005 Simon & Schus ter
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