Pushcart 2012: E. C. Osondu, “Janjaweed Wife” from Kenyon Review, Spring 2010

From "Drawings from Darfur" - Human Rights Watch

From "Drawings from Darfur" - Human Rights Watch

“Have you people forgotten that you are girls? Good girls do not run around screeching, feet pounding gidim, gidim, gidim like the hooves of Janjaweed horses. Both of you had better go and sit down quietly in some corner before I marry you off to some Janjaweed so you can spend all your lives brewing tea.”
Nur turned to me and said, “I do not mind brewing tea. It sounds much easier compared to gathering firewood and all the grinding and pounding of sorghum and corn on mortar and the unending trips to the water well that we have to do every day.”
“God forbid,” I said. “How can you say that, or don ‘t you know that the Janjaweed are djinns riding on horses, and if they pick you as their wife, any day you do not brew their tea fast enough, they will pluck out your heart and eat it like wicked djinns are wont to do?”
“You have never seen a Janjaweed with your two eyes – or have you?”
“No, but that is because they are spirits, and spirits are invisible. The day you see one you will suddenly grow giant goose bumps, catch cold, and begin to shiver. Your teeth will start to chatter and then you die and become a spirit yourself.”

The people on the news, however they move us to sorrow, anger, and action, are often anonymous strangers. Osondu tells us a story that turns Darfur into a real place with real people – even if our guide is a young girl whose name we never know.

She and her sister Nur grew up on their farm hearing tales of the Janjaweed from their mother as quoted above. Seems like some kind of bogeyman, an imaginary creature to frighten children into behaving. But the Janjaweed are, unfortunately, very real, and one night they burn the village and kill the father. Mum and the two girls live in a refugee camp that we get to know better than actual pictures, as we see it through the eyes of a child. And we see Mum become the wife of the Janjaweed, in a desperate and loving, however misguided, effort to improve the lives of her children.

Osondu, originally from Nigeria and now teaching at Providence College, won the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing with his story “Waiting,” also the story of a child in a refugee camp. His 2010 collection Voice of America includes both stories.

The art above speaks volumes as well:

Drawings from Darfur: In early 2005, Human Rights Watch investigators traveled to camps along Chad-Sudan border housing refugee men, women and children from Darfur. During interviews with these refugees, Human Rights Watch investigators gave children paper and crayons to keep them occupied while they gathered testimony from the children’s parents and caregivers. The images presented below are images of violence they drew without any instruction — pictures of Janjaweed on horseback and camel shooting civilians, Antonovs dropping bombs on civilians and houses, an army tank firing on fleeing villagers. Read more about Human Rights Watch’s efforts in Darfur on their web site.

The names of the children have been changed for their protection.

Because sometimes, in some parts of the world, drawing a picture can be dangerous.

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