Today's Reading

With a patient sigh, Mama would place down the okra pods she was drying to use in soups and stews during the rainy season. Wiping her hands on her milaya, a colorful, beautifully embroidered sheet she wore wrapped around her body, she'd kneel and cup my small face in her hands. "Your name is Rachel now, little one. Rachel Achut Lual Deng." She'd say my full name, including my baptismal name, my great-great-grandmother's name, my baba's name, Lual, and his baba's name, Deng. Every Dinka child was gifted the names of their babas and their babas' babas. Even after a woman married, like when Mama married Baba, she did not take her husband's name. She retained the names of her family. You could trace a person's paternal lineage through the names that followed their first name. And the names that followed mine were Lual and Deng. Each name created another link to my family, forging an unbreakable chain through the generations that came before me and the generations that would follow.

"Rachel Achut Lual Deng," I repeated. My face scrunched up at the strange, new first name. "You will get used to it soon enough," Mama would say, and then with a warm smile and no

further explanation, she would send me to help Koko harvest potatoes and cassava.

It wasn't until years later that I heard stories of the white men who'd come to southern Sudan decades before I was born, preaching their God's word and persuading the Dinka people that worship of our creator, Nhialic, and our family names would never earn us a place in their God's heaven. They warned the villagers if they did not abandon their names, beliefs, and god, they would be damning themselves and their children to an eternity in hell. The key, they explained, was to choose a name from their holy text, for only biblical names could save us from such a horrible fate. Achut, much to Mama's dismay, was not a name found in their Bible.

So, when I was around three years old, in a baptismal ceremony I was too young to understand or remember, they replaced my great-great- grandmother's honored name with the name Rachel, which my aunt Elizabeth had plucked from one of the many stories found in the missionaries' holy book.

One afternoon, not long after I'd received the name that would grant me access to the Christians' heaven, Koko and I were working in the garden while Mama helped my aunt Amam, whose baptismal name was Monica, milk one of our cows in the cattle hut. Only five years older than me, Monica, who was eight, was more like an older sister than an aunt. Her older brother, my uncle Abraham, had taken the rest of the family's herd to cattle camp, a three-month-long cattle drive, during which time the men and older boys of our village accompanied their herds as they grazed the savannas of southern Sudan. The cattle camps offered an important education for the boys of our village. The majority of children in Wernyol did not attend schools to study reading and arithmetic. Occasionally, families would send one of their children to northern Sudan to receive a formal education, but to afford the schooling, they had to sell their cattle, which for most families was not an option. Girls, who stayed in Wernyol, were educated in gardening, cooking, and child- rearing by the women in their families to prepare them for their futures as wives and mothers, while the boys were taught how to hunt, fish, and care for their families' herds by the men of the village. Cattle camp provided intensive training for the boys and taught them how to be men. Uncle Abraham had left days earlier with our herd. It was his third time attending the annual cattle camp. As the oldest of my baba's younger brothers, Abraham, who was barely thirteen, had been the only father figure I had known in my three years of life. Despite Koko's and Mama's reassurances he would return home, I missed my uncle every time he left.

"When will Uncle Abraham be home?" I asked Koko.

"Your uncle Garang," Koko corrected me, using her son's traditional name, "will be home at the end of the dry season." She placed her empty basket in the dirt path between two rows of cassava plants.

During the wet season, when he wasn't talking about Adit, a girl from our village who had caught his eye, Abraham regaled Monica and me with stories of cattle camp. Although I'd never left our home or Wernyol, the stories of Uncle Abraham's months spent walking the southern Sudanese savannas with our herd gave me exciting glimpses of life outside our village. As he described his adventures, I'd imagine myself waking early each morning to pray and milk the cows before heading out with the herds in search of grazing ground. I would daydream of what the world outside Wernyol was like and what adventures and lessons might await me beyond its borders.

"When will that be?" I asked.

Koko drove her hand hoe deep into the ground. "He will return home when the rains come." Shielding my eyes from the glare of the rising sun, I looked up at the cloudless blue sky.


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