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Everything is not gwar in Sudan

By Alberta Schweitzer - posted Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Gwar is the Nuer word for OK and they use it all day. If this is what gwar is, I hope I never have to work somewhere it is not gwar.

The clinic staff are mostly Sudanese who grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia, where they got a rudimentary education, compliments of the UNHCR, unlike if they had stayed here.

They walked there from all over south Sudan to escape the war, and spent the next 20 years, some of them, in one of several camps close to the Sudanese border. If my figures are reliable, there are still about 70,000 Sudanese in camps in Ethiopia, which doesn’t include the huge numbers in Kenya and Uganda.


They have only been returning since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, and they felt they had some hope of safety. Probably mistakenly.

Many of our current staff walked alone or with small groups who were on the same trail, when they were as young as 10, but without their parents. Their parents had to stay to guard the cattle, and many of them were killed.

Those who have decided to return have done so because they have some family remaining to look after them. Once they re-enter the Sudan, they are no longer refugees under the UNHCR umbrella, and therefore are not being fed. They have a fantastic sense of family, and if one member is earning money then they are all eating. So any returnees are welcomed by the remaining family and move into the family tukul compound.

The local population is mainly Nuer, some Dinka, some Barun who do not have the facial scarring, and now that the rain has started, some nomadic Bagarra - Arab cattle herders who follow the feed. The Baggara are not welcomed in this area as they poach feed from the traditional occupants, are often armed, and reputed to leave with extra cattle rustled from the locals.

Each of these groups speaks a different language and often do not have a common one, which makes translation in the clinic a challenge.

The Nuer and Dinka have six circular lines cut into their foreheads. With the Nuer they reach around to their hairline, but with the Dinka they extend the cuts well into the hairline which is quite visible as their hair is in tight sparse coils and very short.


This circle work is done to young men when they are about 13 as a decoration and an indication the boy has become a man. The young boy is not allowed to cry, while these, what must be very deep, cuts are made from one side of his forehead to the other, six times, with a pointed stick. And if that isn’t enough, in an additional beautification process, to prove you are tough they then cut little circle flaps out of the face, in geometric patterns, with a steel hook.

This is done to both young boys and girls, and most of them are adorned this way, though they tell me the tradition is dying, and many of the younger children are not decorated this way any more. I haven’t seen too many who aren’t though. All the children wear brightly coloured beads around their waists, from birth, as well as many around their necks and wrists.

The clothes they wear are rags and are often nylon nighties. They are obviously discarded clothes from the west. We always identify children by what they wear i.e. the small boy in the yellow shirt. Because that is all they have. One yellow shirt.

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About the Author

Alberta Schweitzer is a health worker for an aid organisation in South Sudan. This is a pseudonym to protect her safety and that of her co-workers.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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