Ben S. Knowles
3 April 2002
The interview subject, John was born in Sudan in 1981. In 1987, he left Sudan for Ethiopia because of the war. He lived in Ethiopia for four (4) years, and began learning English there. In 1991 he left Ethiopia because of the war there. He returned to Sudan, staying about 6 months, but life was hard there because of the war. In 1992 he moved to Kenya, where he completed his schooling. He arrived in the U.S.A in the spring of 2001 by airplane. John is a beneficiary of a joint U.S. and U.N. refugee program. The subjects of this program are children who were driven from home by the Sudanese war, and are referred to as "Lost Boys" colloquially. There as many as two hundred of these "Lost Boys" in the community surrounding the Central Campus of GPC, and the program may involve as many as three thousand (3,000) individuals all over the United States. As part of this program, after a lengthy selection process including medical screening, John was sponsored by a religious charity who paid his rent for three (3) months and helped him find a job here in town.
Q and A
Q:Did you meet any Americans in Africa?
A:Yeah. I met some in Africa. Some Englishmen is Kenya taught [him] English (through 11th grade)
Q:How does the education system work?:
A:Eight (8) years in primary, usually four (4) in secondary
Q:First Americans, impressions?
A:[In Africa] no difference.
Q:And when you got here?
A:Very difficult to understand Americans speaking English and many had trouble understanding [him] (John speaks moderately accented English quite well. As expected of someone educated in Kenya, his English is more British than American.)
Q:What was different about American culture?
A:In America there is freedom. Whatever you do, you can do. Culture is different because of freedom of culture. They [Americans] don't consider culture. This is because of freedom. If they considered culture there would be no freedom.
Q:Specifically, what do you mean by culture?
A:How your people do things is what I mean. How young children can respect their elders. Things like responsibility, work. The way people marry. Beliefs. There are certain things people respect. Food, way of dressing.
Q:So you say Americans don't care about these things?
A:Yes. Let me give an example: marriage. We Sudanese ... if you marry you must pay dowry [in cattle, maybe 50 head]. We'll be staying together for life. If divorce is suggested, the community elders decide and if they divorce the couple, the dowry must be returned. Americans do not pay dowry and may have different person every day (John is quite baffled by Western ideas about gender and sexuality, and comes back to this point several times. In particular, without the use of the courtship rituals he learned, and his village elders, he has no idea how to behave around women, and had some distress from incidents of misunderstanding of the sort. Also, he didn't expect me to understand the idea of dowry, and may not have believed me when I explained that our society had only recently given up the practice, and that it still takes place.This surprising remark was delivered with the force of conviction, but I did not ask for anecedotal evidence.). Elders from both sides converse at length before marriage is agreed upon. ... Marriages are between familes not individuals. Marriages between blood relatives are forbidden and offspring are deformed. Marriages are between distant familes to minimize the risk. Your relationship [blood] is considered first before friendship, courtship, or engagement The ladies in our culture are considered wealth, because if you have a beautiful daughter her dowry will make you rich. Sudanese ladies, what we call [in America] friendship is illegal. If you are found they might just call the police .. No time is spent alone with a daughter. If you were found talking with her you would be beaten. [Describes at length how prospects are in introduced to parents and daughter together at their home. Negotiations proceed with father and mother.] There is a TV CVR cassette for marriage.
Q:An instructional video or a documentary?
A:A video cassette.
Q:I may have to look at that later. Other differences between Americans and your culture?
A:In our culture clothes are catagorized. Women may not wear mens' clothes regularly. An exception is travel. A lady who wears mens' clothes in public is considered a prostitute and will be shunned by respectable people. (Although John knows and uses the english word "women", he seems to never use it to refer to female people. Girls, daughters, ladies, and even this low woman who is shunned is a "lady")
Q:How could an American get into trouble in Sudan?
A:They don't eat openly. You eat at home and not in the presence of the other gender. It is very rare for ladies to do that.
Q:How do restaraunts work?
A:Different rooms with different types of food... The same way it works here, but different. [ They have separate rooms for men and women.] It changes when you are married.
Q:So you can eat with your wife, just not with unmarried daughters?
A:Yeah. You cannot eat with them. Also, men, they do not cook. Only the ladies cook [wives specifically]. Sometimes your sister might cook for you as a child. If only men live together then they will cook, but only conditionally. If there is a lady, nothing, just ... [explains his living arrangements][recess for lunch at WaHo]
Q:Have you seen an American marriage?
A:No [not even on television.]
Q:But you saw marriages in Africa. What was that like?
A:Different people are invited to come, different guests of honor. They are invited to see the bride and bridegroom. There are two types: custom and religious, the one that is done in a church. (John converted to Christianity in Africa, more on that later.)</em> A priest comes and prays for the bride and bridegroom. He may even read some scripture. The other one takes place at home and we call it custom marriage. The elders of the bride and bridegroom talk together and negotiate how they [the newlyweds] are going to live. After that the bridge is given to the bridegroom and he takes her to his home. During the meeting there are many activities, including dancing. After the meeting and the ceremony is the party. A very big (aged, respected) elder may talk. The bride and bridegroom dance first and then everybody can.
Q:What else besides dancing takes place?
A:Two things: During the meeting there are negotiations and dancing. There are many kinds of musics, drums and horn [cow] blowing.
Q:And they go home and no one talks about [what happens] after that?
A:Right. Also, the bride takes other women [married and unmarried, not related to the bride] with her to their new home and they stay up to three days. On the final day when they want to return -- On the first day they eat there each woman is visited by a young man and is given a gift alokthok to redeem the food they have eaten. The word means water to rinse mouth with. It can be money or goats. Then it is an official marriage, but there are illegal marriages. Marrying a pregnant woman is illegal, as is marrying without the parents consent. (This practice seemed similar to elopement when I described that to him, but the British seemed to call it adoption, or so John thought. ) When you refer the matter to the elders, this is where the negotiation of dowry is done. If you impregnate someone's daughter, you will be taken to the court ... If they [the parents] reject you the court will fine you six cows and pay it to the daughter's parents and you end up with the child. If you try not to pay the child stays with it's mother and you will still have to pay the six cows.
Q:Are men present when a child is born?
A:Yes. In child naming the man names the child ... For the first child you go to the elders and they tell you about your grandparents and the name is derived from that. Children are not given the name of someone else. It is for remembering that this is done. They can also choose a name from the cows given in marriage, like the colors: white,red [gender variant] for both. Starts wiht M for men and A for women. If a white bull is given during marriage a male child could be called Mabior or a red cow and a lady, Alual. Also, name can be given due to events [weather] or something people believe, you can take the name.
Q:At what age does a boy become a man?
A:Before you reach manhood, a boy must be initiated. At he age of eighteen (18) or above, maybe even twenty (20), there are things to be done. Initiation has different form. There are different types depending on which ethnic group you are.
Q:Like tribes ... or?
A:Yeah. Like in our tribe, called Dinka. So in our tribe we have two different kinds of initiation. First, all of the candidates come together to one place. They eat together, live together and that first night all of their heads are shaved by one razor blade [aparak] and they are no longer boys [teenagers]. They stay together for up to three months being taught about culture by the elders [war, marriage, beliefs]. During the three months they are kept from all women strictly. Then they can go meet women. Another way ... In other tribes during initiation the head is marked. [Jon goes into great specific detail about the markings, which are apparently deep and quite visible and are caused by tightly wrapping cord around the head.]
Q:So, in this tribe, a woman would not consider a man without the markings?
A: They are not men. They cannot marry or do anything men do. There are some exceptions. For the ones with the head are shaved if are not there when the ceremony takes place you can still marry. Not so for the initiation markings. In some tribes a boy must kill a lion to become a man. During the first three days of initiation the candidates cannot greet ladies or step in cow dung. After the rites of the first day you can greet ladies but no sex (John pronounces this word more like sechs or sects.) until the end of the three months.
A:When somebody dies all the relatives cry alot. Everybody is mourning, sometimes for days upto a month. The first or second , maybe third or fourth they come together and something is brought to be killed, like a cow or a goat (It seems reasonable to guess that the animal is chosen according to the status of the decedant.). People eat it and talk about -- encourage [ each other]. Traditionally the skin of the animal is torn into strips and worn on the neck by the elders. Now, something is killed and people talk words of encouragement and try not to lose hope. We bury the body immediately. In Africa, the same day it is buried. Now, in the modern world it is taken to a hospital [and possibly autopsied].
Q:How long each day were you in school?
A: 7:15 to 14:30 in secondary and to 13:30 in primary.
- three terms a year [like semesters]
- final exams are cummulative every term and every third term
- headmaster/headmistress and deputy
- director is in charge of all area schools [like superintendant?]
Q:How is secondary school different?
A:Standing is not necessary but the teacher is greeted. The teacher is respected and you must pay attention in class and do your work, be on time. [Rather than the teacher caning secondary school students, the headmaster is involved and students may be held back.] Teaching materials are the same. Teachers give lectures and must keep notes for the subject, as the headmaster checks up on teachers with them. Class monitor is chosen to be in charge of class [from students] and may be in charge of cleaning classroom and contacting headmaster in case of teacher absence. [Form of address is] Teacher or Madam if married lady, otherwise Miss (Ms.) (Here John returns to discussing the problems he has communicating with American women. I manage to restrain myself from explaining that American men are little more aware than he of how to do this, as I do not think he would appreciate it. He is somewhat concerned about his marriage prospects, to say the least.)
Q:How did you get to school?
A:Your parents take you to school and pay money and you are registered. They talk with the headmaster and he tells them about the cost. For me, as a refugee, we were dependant on the U.N., the U.N.H.C.R. [United Nation High Commision(er) on Refugees] so school was free. In Kenya (class 4) the U.N. was paying as well, all the way through secondary school. Private school you pay money. It depends on the class .. in high school ten thousand (10K) [Kenyan] shillings depending on the area. Other areas and schools could be as much as twenty thousand (20K) sh per term. If you give someone over there one thousand dollars ($1000 USD), you could finish high school, equivalent to seventy-five thousand (75K) sh. [It] would also pay for university. (I am quite interested in the financial disparity he describes and try to make comparisions, starting with the cost of an automobile here.) If you take eleven thousand ($11,000 USD), a low price for a new car, you could buy five vehicles [Land Rovers or Toyota trucks]. (We agree that this seems a lucrative business model, and in fact wealthy individuals do this throught out the year.)
Q:Job and School?
A:No, no job. [some description of activities with UN]
Q:If not for the UN would you have gone to school?
A:No. How would I pay? In Sudan, when there was no war, it was the same. If your parents have enough cattle they sell some cattle to pay school fees, excepting scholarships [Good marks, football talent can cause someone to pay for you].
Q:Do most children go to primary and secondary school?
A:Yes. It is important for all children to go to school. (It is not made clear how poorer families hold up the importance of their children educations, and no mention is made of public school, and no information is given about pre-colonial educational systems.)
A:Football, basketball, volleyball .. sports. Clubs: Drama Club, Debate Club, religious clubs
Q:Were you born into it? ( I meant: Was this your parents religion? ... )
A:Yes. Before I was Christian I believed in some other things. (John uses terminology and speech patterns common in certain Protestant Christian sects, who promote one's conversion to the faith as a re-birth ("Born Again"). Hence the confusion ..)
Q:What was that [you believed in]?
A:I was just believing in my ancestors. Yes, that is what people believe in Sudan if you are not Christian or Muslim.
Q:Would you tell me more about that?
A:I don't have term in English ... When your ancestors say do this -- mostly the elders, the big people, know this. Sometimes they dream it. If a child is sick then age group [gender segregated as well].
Q:So, you eat alone a lot?
A:In the city a husband may eat with his wife. Outside that, if his brother is not there he will eat alone. [Typically a peer is sought to dine with.]
A:Sudanese, Christian, about twenty-one (21) years old, working in shipping department of large American retail company
Q:Were your parents rich?
A:Before the war they has many cattle. Everything has been destroyed and people scattered
Q:What other courses (apart from religion) in primary school?
- two languages: English, KiSwahili
- GHC: Geogracy, History, Civics
- Primary Science
- Home Science [Home Economics]
- Music, Arts & Crafts
- Business Education [Economics]
In secondary school there are four Forms and four years:
- two languages: English and Kiswahili literature
- three sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Biology
- Commerce [includes accounting]
- History and Government
- Geography (Kenyan and world)
- some schools: Social Studies
- must take two languages and mathematics
- pick two of the three sciences (John took Chemistry and Physics)
- either History or Geography
- one of CRE, Social Studies, or Commerce (although some schools require CRE)
Q:How was American culture demonstrated to you?
A:For the children and big people it is different. Here everybody is equal. In terms of responsibility, the eldest brother takes responsibility for family when father is absent. Im terms of respect if you have visitors -- you go to my place, I will make everything nice for you. You will not be allowed to touch anything. I will do everything for yo if you are guest. In terms of eating, child cannot eat with the elders. Also, you cannot eat in an open place. If there is restaurant you eat inside or you take your food home. It is very shameful not to. About sex, you do it secretly, not openly. Younger one cannot insult abuse or insult an elder. There must be a very serious case. If you do something wrong, any elder, even not your family, should punish you. (I briefly explain to John that many in our society feel the same way about hospitality, and remind him that we are having these interviews in a cafe (not a home) and that I have purposefully not set foot inside his dwelling, lest I burden him by becoming a guest.)
Q:In a religious (rather than customary) marriage, what religion in the priest?
A:You go to church and you are married in the church. It varies by denomination, some call him pastor. Anglican.
Q:Funerals. Who prepares the body?
A:The elder people prepare the body.
Q:Any special clothing for funerals, burial?
A:They don't put clothes [on the corpse]. In the modern world the body -- in city -- is taken to hospital and covered with white clothes.
Q:What do people wear to a traditional funeral?
A:You cannot put on good clothes. You wear something to show you are mourning. You can tie a rope around your head (both genders). You can kill a cow or goat and the people who come together (the family) and the skin of the animal is made into rope put onto the neck of the all of the elders present. (but not children). (This evokes some parallels with the Biblical/Jewish tradition of rending ones clothes or wearing sackcloth after a death)
Q:Primary/Secondary. Co-ed classes?
A:In some schools there are schools only for girls and ladies secondary school. In my classes they were mixed.
A:People wear uniforms in school in secondary and primary. In secondary you wear long trousers and in primary shorts. Ladies wear skirts in secondary and primary. (Like many other aspects of the educational systems john describes, this is a near exact reproduction of the British system.)
Q:[gender in] Extracurricular?
A:Girl Guides, Boy Scouts... Drama Club and the like are for both. Sports have separate teams. Ladies do not play football much. (Here, and else where, John is not talking about American Football, but futbol, or soccer)
Q:Rituals for keeping ancestors happy?
A:I was too young then [to know of such things].
Q:All of that is done by the elders?
A:Yes. (Because of John's age and refugee status he is not knowledgeable of many aspects of his birth culture. In particular he knows very little about their belief systems and rituals. It is possible that John was not initiated in the manner he described, but I did not feel it useful or polite to inquire.)
Q:Who are your most important relatives and why?
A:Your mother and your mothers sister [aunt]. Because your mother cannot do anything to hurt you, cannot let anything bad happen. Your mother can not let you do anything that would make you a bad person -- your mother cannot let it happen. Your mother cannot leave you if you do bad things to her or bad things happen to you. You can become whatever and your mother will still say "child." (I did not inquire as to last occassion when John saw his mother.)
John is a well educated and polite young man. It seems that with the great assistance of the refugee programs and his strength of character, he has thrived in a hostile environment more than once. Although he is having some difficulty fitting in, this is not uncommon for twenty-one year old males in our society. The only down side seems to be that he knows only so much of his people's traditions, and that without them his future is quite uncertain, and without the guidance of his elders he will have to make his own way.