Preface to Cry of the Owl

Francis Mading Deng is currently South Sudan's first ambassador to the United Nations. His prolific career not only includes public service but he has also authored and edited 40 books in the fields of history, politics anthropology and folklore, and has written two novels on the theme of the crisis of national identity in the Sudan. He was one the first authors from the region to have been published internationally in English. Deng hails from the Ngok branch of the Dinka tribe, which is largest group in Sudan. His fiction, biographies and some of his anthropological work attempts to explore the intricacies of Dinka life along with the political imperative of shattering the perception of Arab-African disparity in Sudan. His second novel, Cry of the Owl tells the story of Elias Bol Malek who is the son of a Dinka chief. It is framed as a bildungsroman, a novel of moral and psychological development, and spans his journey through a changing Sudan from the sixties to eighties as differences between the North and South are tipping towards civil war. Elias has a high status within his own people and also gets an education at the Christian missionary school. Throughout the protagonist's life, the question of the Arabicized versus Africanized identity rears its head. During a skirmish, his parents lose a son to an Arab group and later, it also turns out that Elias himself is an offspring born of an Arab man who had kidnapped his mother. The chosen excerpt below displays various aspects of traditional Dinka life as Elias returns to his village to pay respects to his ailing father. Herein, the question of his brother lost to an Arab group appears for the first time in the novel. In Cry of the Owl, Deng wishes to rupture the very mythology on which the civil conflict between the North and South has been laid out. By revealing the fragile roots of this identity politics, the author is asking for a radical requisitioning of the very presumptions on which cultural clashes are built and how to go about finding constructive and innovative solutions to co-exist in an eternally splintering world.  

Chapter Three

ELIAS WOKE UP BY daybreak, brushed his teeth, washed his face, and sat on a chair outside his father’s courthouse. He was soon joined by his companions. They were having their morning tea, marveling at the transformation of nature when a boy came to say that Elias’s father wanted to see him. Elias hurried to his father’s hut and found him with his mother. His father was drinking tea.

Elias could not believe how improved he looked. “How did you sleep, Father?”

“Quite well. I feel much better than I have done for some time now.”

Turning to Aluel, Malengdit said, “Pour your son a cup of tea!”

“No, thank you. I have just had my tea.”

“Have more.”

“Well, let me pour it then,” Elias conceded.

“Aluel, perhaps you should leave us alone now. I want to talk to Bol.”

“What keeps me outside your talk?” protested Aluel mildly.

“There are some things which only men should know,” Malengdit explained. “But on second thought, perhaps you too should know this one. Only I want it to be strictly between us. You women have a way of betraying secrets. Keep this one to yourself.”

“What secret have I ever betrayed?” Aluel questioned with a conciliatory laughter that took Malengdit’s comment not as a criticism, but rather as a teasing emphasis on the confidentiality of what was about to come.

“Son, as I told you, I slept well last night; I certainly feel much better today,” resumed Malengdit. “Several things happened which I thought I should tell you about. What I told you yesterday about the message of the lion seems to be already manifesting itself. I was sleeping when I was woken by the sound of a lion. It was not the sound of a hungry lion; it was a peaceful roar. When I woke up and tried to listen more carefully, I could hear it no longer. I asked the woman, your young stepmother who was sleeping with me, but she said that she had not heard any lion’s roar. She dismissed it as a dream. I did not argue with her, although I was sure that I heard the sounds of a lion. I recalled your experience and felt that even if it were a dream, there was a message in that dream. Anyway, I decided to go back to sleep.

“I had gone back to sleep for only a brief period when I woke up again and this time heard an owl cry. It was on top of this hut. The rain had stopped for a while. Your stepmother also heard it. She wanted to go out and chase the owl away, but I prevented her from doing so. Our people consider the owl an evil bird because it functions at night. But for the same reason, it is a wise bird that sees things in the darkness- things others do not see. I felt that its visit might have some significance, a purpose. So, I called a few words of prayer for ancestors to reveal to me the purpose of the visits by the lion and the owl. Both brought to mind the tragedy our family faced once when the cry of the owl was followed by the Arab attack and the intervention of the lions against them. Anyway, I prayed for the significance of these revelations.

“Then I went back to sleep and saw an astonishing vision in a dream. Our sacred spears, the symbols of our divine leadership, were blazing with a white flame and lying coiled around them was the snake totem of our clan, the puff adder. He was not at all affected by the heat of the flame. Indeed, there was no heat; it was merely a ring of light. I took it to be the illumination of our spirit, Ring, the Flesh. So, still in the dream, I got up; I prayed for explanation in front of the spears; I anointed the puff adder with butter; and I placed a gourd of melted butter in front of him. Then my father appeared next to the spears and with him was a creature who looked human but which I could not easily identify. That creature was holding the rope tied to the neck of the bull Malek, which was sacrificed yesterday. The bull looked as alive as any animal in the herd.

“It was my father who spoke first. ‘Son,” he said, ‘listen to our words very carefully, but do not try to touch us. We are not of your world. The man with me is Malengdit, the spirit after whom you are named. You know that I named you after him because he had saved our people from the disaster of smallpox. He is a life-giver, not a killer. And yet, Ayueldit was correct in divining that Malengdit wanted to bring you into our world of the dead. His intention, which he discussed with me, was to save you.

‘We have been watching over the affairs of your world and have been deeply distressed by the changes we have observed. Our people have been transformed by foreign powers. First, the English came and introduced our young people to their religion, their language, and their ways of doing things. But at least they left most of our people under their chiefs to live their lives the way their ancestors had always done. Then the Arabs of the North and the Egyptians sent the English away and said that they wanted the Sudan to be united into one people. This has now turned into a disaster for our people. They have been subjected to the kind of wars that destroyed this country before the English came. And now, our people are being turned into Muslims and away from the religion of their forefathers. Our people have been changed twice in your own lifetime, first to adopt the ways of the English and now to adopt the ways of the Arabs. Your power to control things through the ancient ways of your ancestors is being undermined and diminished.’

“My father went on: ‘To hold your position only means to make your people believe that their ancestral powers still prevail when they have lost control. It is now being said that chieftainship should be abolished and chiefs replaced with elected leaders. That will be the end of ancestral leadership through divine chiefs. Malengdit argued, and I agreed with him, that it would be disastrous for our people to have our ancient leadership terminated by foreign rulers. It would be better for you to withdraw naturally and let the young educated generation assume their power through the ways they know best.

“We, the ancestors, including you, their fathers, will then keep a close watch on them and bless their efforts from here in order for them to keep the names of our people alive and retain effective control over their own affairs. That was indeed why we sent the lion to meet with Bol so that he would know their clan spirits are with them even in distant lands. Malengdit and I have heard the prayers of the elders to save you for the people and have decided to grant their request for now. But, son, we have appeared to you in order to advise you to prepare your sons to take over and provide the people with the leadership required by the new conditions that now prevail. To be effective in meeting the challenge, your sons must come together. Convince Bol to look for his lost twin brothers, Achwil, whom the Arabs captured while infant, and Madit, who later disappeared. We have spotted them. One is living a dangerous life in an Arab town. The other has met with a smoother success, but has become completely Arab. Bol must look for them and bring them back to the service of their people together with him. Those are our words. You will live long enough to fulfill this prophesy and then we will come to fetch you so that you retied with dignity and preserve the ancestral legacy of our leadership. We must go now. Farewell, my son.’

“Then I fell into a deep sleep from which I woke up this morning feeling much better. So, my son, that was what happened last night and those were the words of my father. I do not have much to add except this.”

As he spoke, he pointed to the sacred spears at the back of the hut. The two large spears, one leaf-like and the other lance-life, had been passed down the family line from time immemorial and represented the power of divine rule. They rested on a piece of oiled leather and lying coiled next to them was a huge puff adder with a gourd of melted butter in front of it.

“What is that?” shouted Elias, who until then had been silently absorbed, mesmerized by the story. “I woke up early to find him there. So I got up and said a few words of prayer and gave him the butter. You see, son, I have survived this illness and will live for some time yet, but the will of the ancestors must be fulfilled. You must find your brothers and work together for the cause of peace and well-being among your people. It will not be necessary any more for you to stay here. You must return and get to task.”

Elias had noticed that his mother’s eyelids were heavy with tears. When his father concluded his words, she lost control of herself and broke own, sobbing. Malengdit was angered by her conduct. “Aluel, this was exactly what I was afraid of when I asked you to leave,” he said. “How dare you cry over a prophetic word from the ancestors? Have you not heard that I am not dying as yet? Is that news to cry over or did you want me to die? Now, let me see no more tears or else you will make my tongue say bad words.”

“How can you talk like that?” Aluel complained as she wiped her tears. “How can you talk in such a cold-blooded way about our twin sons? And how can you recall their memory and expect me to show no emotions? Can’t you see that I have struggled to forget, but can’t? Now you speak of them as though they are still alive and you expect me to remain calm? You may want them for leadership, but for me, I don’t care whether they are to be leaders or not; I only pray to God that you are right and that they are still alive and well.” And as she spoke, she began to wail.

“Woman, it is not my words that I say; I am only a tongue for the words of our ancestors. You must not doubt the truth of their words. You speak as though your children were born of a woman without a father. Are they yours alone or our together? Stop crying: you will offend our ancestors and make them take those children away forever.”

Elias felt so removed from their world that he did not even know how to respond. He certainly knew the story of his lost brothers, but he had never fully realized how much their memory still meant to his parents. In fact, he felt shaken by the reference to their role in leadership. Was his father, whose idea all this obviously was, disappointed with Elias’s role? Or was it merely that he was pained by the loss of his other sons and wanted to justify the renewal of the search?

Elias quickly dismissed these suspicious ideas and relished the thought that his brothers might still be alive. How wonderful it would be to be reunited with them! Perhaps, since they were older than him, they could help in the burdensome task of leadership. All those thoughts crossed his mind in a flash as he listened to his parents, while continuing to watch the snake.

“Father, this is a deadly snake,” Elias spoke out on a topic he felt needed most urgent attention. “We must kill it or dispose of it in some way.”

“Son, this is exactly what your ancestors were talking about. Your ways are different. But you must understand your people’s ways. You see, a power that is deadly is equally effective in protecting life. Our clan is known for its power to destroy by curse, but we are equally famed for providing spiritual protection for our people. That is what these large sacred spears stand for. And just as our destructive power is only effective in punishing wrongdoing, this ancestor you see lying by the spears is only deadly against those who deserve punishment. Otherwise, he is a protector. Can’t you see that he is here by the will of God and the ancestors?”

“Is there really nothing we can do, Father, to protect people from a possible accident with the snake?”

“Malek, Bol is telling the truth,” interjected his mother. “This is a village of many people. It is possible that our ancestor, the puff adder, might wish to stretch a little by moving around the village. Cattle could trample over him. Humans might accidently step on him. He might take that as disdain and strike back. We will have opened another front with the spirits. I suggest that he be taken away for his own protection and to prevent harm to anyone.”

“Go and look for a lamb of chuany color, one whose pattern is as close as possible to that of the puff adder,” Malengdit conceded. “And as Ayueldit to come with my brother Akol. We shall dedicate the lamb to his and the ancestors to explain that his removal is not rejection, but protection.”

“There can be nothing bad in that,” confirmed Aluel, pleased that the chief had heeded her advice. “After all, his message has been received and will be honored.”

The village of Dak-Jur was now festive with celebrations that honored the miraculous blessing of a downpour and the recovery of Chief Malengdit. The reputation of Ayueldit for diagnostic accuracy and curative powers, already well deserved, was enhanced. Drums were brought out and the distant tribes, invited by their sounds, joined in the singing and dancing display of joy and gratitude. Animals were slaughtered and abundant foods prepared. The festivities continued for days, but the secret of the divine message remained exclusive to Elias and his parents.

Within days of the heavy rains with which the prayers for the chief’s well-being had been received by the heavenly powers, more rain fell and the land continued to be transformed. The plans were now covered with a green carpet of virgin grass while the trees began to bud colorfully and the rivers teamed with minnows and tadpoles. A symphony of sounds in the air provided both lullabies for sleep and tunes for waking up in the morning. Children gratified themselves with a cool bath in the rain pools surrounding the village, while the cattle spread out feasting lavishly on the sprouting grass.

Although Elias was now more assured of his father’s health, he felt that he should take him to Khartoum for a medical check up and whatever treatment he might need. “I don’t see the purpose, my son,” responded his father. “Our ancestors have revealed their will to us; we must act accordingly. I have no need for medical advice.”

“Father, I trust the wisdom of the ancestral will, but I see no harm in complementing that with the benefit of modern medicine.”

“That can only make our ancestors believe that we do not have full faith in them.”

“Now Father, in this day and age we cannot continue to believe in a conflict between the ancestral ways and the ways of our advancing world; the conflict must be resolved.”

Elias allowed the matter to rest knowing very well that he would have to rally the support of the elders, including Ayueldit, the Man of God. As soon as Elias found the opportunity to talk to Ayueldit in the presence of his father, he raised the question, making sure that the diviner did not read his suggestion as a vote of no confidence in his efforts. “I really think that we are better off using all the defense we have against the disease,” he said. “It is better to overkill than be the victim.”

The task of persuading Ayueldit proved far less difficult than Elias had thought, for the diviner saw no contradiction in the various approaches to Malengdit’s well-being. 

“I have always maintained, as you said the other day, that we are all working for the same end, the well-being of man,” he reasoned. “We appeal more directly to God and our ancestors to remove any evils that threaten life, to restore health and to safeguard the well-being of man in society; doctors on the other hand rely more heavily on their man-made medicines. But without God’s blessing or will, their treatment would not work. So, you see why I say that we are all working for the same thing?”

It was eventually agreed that Elias Bol should take his father to Khartoum. One of the old man’s younger wives was designated to go along to nurse him. Aluel insisted that she too should go. “We pray that Malengdit will recover,” she said, “but I want to be by his side in his illness and even more so, should he die.”

The matter ended on her word, even though her reference to Malengdit’s possible death was dismissed as unnecessary fatalism.

Eager to combine caring for his father with his duties as a member of the Assembly, Elias saw to it that they left as soon as the necessary arrangements for his father’s departure were made.

When it was time to leave, a spot was prepared for Malengdit to lie on the back of the truck with Aluel and the junior wife sitting next to him. Elias and the security officer sat next to the driver. Malengdit insisted that they take a lamb and leave it where the lion had appeared as a gift or a symbol of gratitude. The lamb was tethered to the frame of the truck in the back. 

The journey itself was trying for the rains had penetrated the land transforming the pavement-like soil into a heavy muddy clay. The beaten track suddenly became a long trail of mud in which the truck frequently got stuck. The passengers, except Malengdit and his wives, and of course the driver, would all get down to aid the engine with a push. No one cared anymore about protecting their clothes, or for that matter their bodies from the mud. Indeed, the muddies they looked, the more hard working and conscientious they appeared and the more self righteous they felt. When they came to the spot where they had encountered the lion, the driver, who had been informed of the plan stopped. 

“Was this not where we found that lion?” he asked Elias and the other companions, who quickly confirmed the judgment.

Chief Malengdit was too exhausted to perform the full rituals of dedication. But he said a few words of invocation lying down, and reaching for the lamb, rubbed it on the back and said, “Tie him to a tree; his owner will come and find him there.”

That done, they roared on, leaving the lamb crying in a voice that sounded pitiful to Elias Bol but which to his father and mother confirmed a fulfillment of the ancestral obligation and a promise for a successful search for Achwil and Madit, the missing twins, which had just been revealed in Malengdit’s dream.