Songs of the Nuer

by Terese Svoboda

In honor of National Poetry Month, I would like to celebrate the poetry of Nebraska’s newest arrivals, the Nuer. When I lived with the Nuer in the Sudan in the seventies, collecting and translating their songs, I was surprised to find myself in a landscape very much like western Nebraska, surrounded by cattle. Now, so many decades later, I’m truly astonished that in the wake of the terrible fighting in the Sudan, many Nuers have moved to Nebraska, primarily to Omaha, but there is also a community within a hundred miles of Ogallala, where I was born. Their generosity to me in Africa where we had nothing but song, cattle and land was very inspiring. Song is their most developed art form. Their land has few natural resources  to encourage more concrete forms of artistic expression: no stone to sculpt, no metal to cast, and very little wood. Because the Nuer migrate every six months, or as the Nile flooding dictates, it is extremely difficult for them to transport anything extraneous to daily life. Song records their history, puts their children to sleep, attracts lovers, seals agreements, spreads the news. The role of song for the Nuer is so powerful that if a man sings well enough he may move up his wedding date, and it is sometimes used as evidence in a judicial hearing.  Every Nuer I met in the seventies knew hours of memorized song. But I made my visit during a brief truce in the fighting that began in 1956 when the British left the country badly divided. So many years of war–nearly fifty–may have silenced them.

What follows is a song composed by the wife of a government official in Malakal who had fought as a guerilla fighter near the Ethiopian border. It reminds me very much of Pound’s “translation” of the Chinese poet, Li Po, “The River-Merchant’s Wife.”

Road to the Congo

Yes, Jules sleeps but trouble
makes him toss and turn.
I wait for him across the border.
I’ve never seen Ethiopia but I know
he’ll be where there’s gunfire.

Bul Dieng, the village was torn apart
as if by weaverbirds.
Yes, Biel went to Khartoum,
Cuany went to Mading Buol.

We are all travel-weary.
We leave for Kator, for the town of Juba.
Let me say that on the road to the Congo
even the little girls of Riawang
answer us with a honk.

Yesterday, Tuyel, someone brought over his photo.
“Dieng, don’t blow on the fire inside the house—
you are blinding me. Let me see.
Jiok Lual, who is this stranger?
My heart is filled with longing.”

It will be a year before he returns, Gabriel.
Col Bewjiok, I stay by the bridge
to answer his greeting.
Writing just puts me further from him.

Sung by Nyagak Pinien


Poet and novelist Terese Svoboda published Tin God with the University of Nebraska Press.  More Nuer songs can be found in her book Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, Nuer Song.

Read poet Cortney Davis’ post for National Poetry month

Read poet and translator Nina Shevchuk-Murray’s post for National Poetry month. 

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