“The Company of Women” by Mary Higbee

Not knowing what it will be like, I look at photos in National Geographic magazines, watch documentaries, study scholarly books on culture, and browse through a collection of African folktales to prepare myself to be a secondary teacher in South Sudan. All these images weave a fabric of expectations I carry with me when I board the plane in San Francisco to travel further than I have ever been before. But once in South Sudan, I see for myself no book or film can come close to capturing the landscape’s intense colors and vastness. The lush canopy of the topical trees above me, yellow birds the shade of summer marigolds outside my window, and at night, the Milky Way’s glittering path meandering across a black ink sky is how I have always imagined a mythical place. But this place is real.

The setting captivates me, but not as much as the Dinka people. The rural village of Atiaba is a wide place on a dirt road where its residents live in round clay and stick houses called tukuls. I watch people going about their daily lives, walking to the marketplace, tending herds of goats and cows, and preparing their fields for planting. Women visit the borehole to collect water for the day while their children play with the toys nature provides–sticks, stones, and mud puddles. The first weeks of living in Atiaba fill my senses to overflowing. It isn’t until the end of each day that I have time to consider all that is happening. 

I am rarely ready for sleep when darkness, the lack of electricity, and the abundance of mosquitoes force an early bedtime.  Even after my husband Jim and I arrange the mosquito netting around our bed and carefully crawl in without untucking the net from the corners, I am wide awake. 

By the second week, plans for opening the new school consume my late-night thoughts. I mentally review Jim’s and my first meeting with the school staff. The South Sudanese headmaster had drawn a timetable on the blackboard resembling mosaic blocks, with each square representing a teaching period. When I remember the squares on the blackboard labeled “English,” my breathing becomes shallow and hesitant. Those are mine to teach.

“I want to come to your school,” the young people repeatedly tell me who arrive for enrollment interviews. I sit with each person and listen carefully to understand their African pronunciation of English words. The tall, lean young men request admission to the school with sincerity and eagerness.  

In less than a month, the newly built school will begin with a freshman class, the only secondary school for miles. Girls have enrolled in only three of the sixty available spots. Officials have told Jim and me no girls will come to the new school, so having three girls is considered excellent. The idea of being pleased with only three girls challenges my Western point of view. 

My nocturnal habit of staying awake after I go to bed continues into the third week of our living at the school compound. I notice when the village sounds of crying babies, barking dogs, and indistinct voices die away. In the silence that follows, the hyenas in the forest begin a serenade of moans. Their mournful songs express the loneliness I allow myself to feel only in the late hours of the night. 

The day’s events play in scenes behind my closed eyes. I think about the visitors to the school compound. Men often come in groups of three or four, curious about Jim and me and the school. For these occasions, Jim and I bring out the plastic chairs and place them in the shade of the mahogany tree. The men know English and engage in lively conversations about politics, weather, and agriculture. As a woman from the United States, I am welcome to join the circle. 

But the village women rarely visit us. I am learning the women are shy because they don’t know English. I watch them from afar and imagine how their lives must mirror their great, great grandmothers–collecting water and firewood, cooking over an open fire, draping laundry on bushes to dry, and nurturing the children. Without the availability of new clothes, their wardrobes often come from donation boxes sent from around the world and passed out by pastors in local churches. I am charmed by the way the women combine the hand-me-downs. They favor primary colors and have no qualms about mixing stripes and prints. I decide my drip-dry beige skirt makes me look like a drab little wren while they dress like magnificent parrots.

My nightly musings often end in vague uneasiness. Dream-like memories tumble in no particular order through my conscience, and I recall my eighth-grade year at a new school. As a newcomer, I was on the sidelines of social interactions at lunchtime and waiting for the bus. After the first anxious week of dreading to go to school, a girl named Pam scooted over to make an extra spot at the lunch table and waved me over. Her kindness began our friendship and was the first step to my belonging. The vivid memory stirs me awake, and I sit up and peer into the darkness. I had wanted to belong in middle school, and decades later, I want to belong in Atiaba. I can finally name the ache I feel, and it is my longing to be accepted into the company of women.

If I want to initiate friendships with the women of Atiaba, then I need to go where they are. I decide the best place is the borehole just outside our school gate. I watch for a few days, noting women usually come twice a day, morning and late afternoon. I observe the prescribed etiquette for taking turns to pump water. As each woman arrives, she places her jerry can behind the cans already there to mark her turn. 

It is late afternoon, the first time I go to the borehole. The seven women gathered there seem surprised to see me. No one expects the American teacher from the new secondary school to fetch water. I greet them with the small amount of Dinka I know. 

I carry my jerry can in the school’s wheelbarrow. In planning my trip to the borehole, I realize I will need the wheelbarrow to transport the water because the jerry can will be too heavy for me to carry when full. Having a wheelbarrow in South Sudan is the equivalent of driving a BMW in the United States. I wonder how my extravagant possession will be regarded. The women’s friendly greetings indicate their willingness to make allowances for me.

I put my jerry can behind the last can in the line, and immediately one of the women moves it to the front. I look at my can, now re-positioned ahead of all the others. After being hyper-vigilant for the last month about being culturally appropriate, I decide to risk doing something that might be considered rude. I pick up my can, move it back to the end of the line, and smile with an affirmative nod. The seven exchange looks and speak in Dinka to one another. The women visibly relax and return my smile. 

I notice most women have brought a funnel made by cutting a disposable plastic water bottle in half and inverting the top part of the bottle. The improvised funnel fits in the can’s opening and directs the water without spilling. My turn is next, and I am unsure how pumping will go since I don’t have a funnel. I had not known about this small but essential detail.

A woman behind me touches my shoulder, and I turn to her. She holds out her water bottle funnel to me. Her kindness reminds me of how Pam had eased my way by making room for me at the middle school lunch table long ago. 

“Yin ca leec,” I say, pleased the Dinka words for thank you spring from me without having to work to remember them. I step forward and position my jerry can and the borrowed funnel under the water pipe, and pump.

My name is known in the village, so as each woman departs, she calls, “Mary, Mary,” and glides gracefully away, balancing the can on her head as she has done since childhood.

I put my full can into the wheelbarrow and push it through the school gate. “Yin ca leec,” I whisper to myself.

Mary Higbee is a retired middle school English teacher living in northern California. Mary has spent time in South Sudan, Kenya, and Tanzania working with teachers and students in her retirement. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the Barnstorm Journal., the Coachella Review Online Blog, and Scarlet Leaf Review.