Anybody could write, if he understood how to sort his thoughts, select the verbs and nouns most fitting.
Anybody, anywhere—in Africa or America South, in Syria or Singapore, in Korea North or Kenya, Karen or Kakuma—could write, a poem or story, if it blazed in him, and the smoke smoldered his heart and incited his thoughts.
He could tell a story.
These sentiments, more or less, a boy, of sixteen or seventeen at the time—an estimation I reached given the vibration of his voice and the density of his beard and the texture of his face and the style of his conduct—infused in me one evening, in the accent of his former country, while he and I sat on a bench, at the edge of Napata grounds, Kakuma Refugee Camp. He was a boy of tall stature, and dark complexion, out of South Sudan, in search of safety; I was a young man of twenty-and-seven, on a mission for my media company, in search of news. He was a boy who had encountered this and that and all, as happens in a zone of conflict; I was a young man who possessed views of life as can be absorbed by kids who live in places devoid of conflict . He was called Biel, and I, then, and even now, Taifa Mkenya.
“My Friend, your work is finished?” said he, on that bench upon which we sat side by side that evening, the third sitting since we met. And the sun was still hot, and the rain was still missing, and little boys were still playing on this ground.
“No, no. I am here for three months more,” I said.
“You say to me yesterday you write for newspaper?”
“Which one? Me, I hear Nation¸ Standard…and even of outside, like Guardian and New York Times. Which one is—?”
“I don’t work for any of those. Mine is small—it is a startup company. One that is just beginning.”
“Me, I understand. You say you write story of life in this camp, but let me tell you—”
“Wait—” said I; he never allowed me to expound what I did there.
“—no, you wait, my Friend. Me, I read stories on this—” said he, lifting his smart phone and tapping it “—I read stories here. Many is not correct—”
“What is not correct?” I said.
“The stories I read here,” said he, tapping his phone still.
“My Friend. You come here, and talk to one, two, three people. Then write story. But me I live here, many years, since I was like this—” he estimated the height of an infant with his palm, off the ground “—you see. So me I understand. But you come here, talk to small people, and write story which has many wrong. Maybe you only write story of Somalis, or Congolese, or Rwandese, or even of Dinka only. So the story is true on small side and wrong on big side. I—”
“Ok. So, in your view—” said I.
“No, it is not to do with my view. And don’t feel bad, my Friend,” said he, tapping my shoulder, “me, I don’t say you are bad person. I don’t say your work is bad. Me, I know ni kutafuta unga. In Kiswahili you say like that, sindio? You understand? Me, I want to write stories of here, because me I live here. I understand what happen. So I have one beg. Can you help me?”
Biel wanted to learn how to tell a story, and I told him that I’d share with him what I knew of the craft. To begin, we agreed that he’d write a sample story and present to me there on the bench, at 6pm, the following day.
We met the following evening, and after greetings, sat on the bench. He handed me his exercise book, and I perused his writing, which he scribbled in pencil. It began this way:
…TO TELL A STORY_01
Every ear, hear, hear. One early morning, in the town of Malakal, the morning not very cold and not very dark, Gat come down from his home hurriedly-hurriedly. His home was on top of high land and he was going down to the White Nile. There was big smoke come out of his home, going up. But the smoke was not of fire of arson, or of fire of SPLA, or of fire of Nuer White Army…the smoke was of cooking, cooking by his mother. But Gat would not wait for breakfast, because he was going down the Nile to Lul, with his friends Adut, Luok and Deng.
There was no any war in the country of South Sudan; all people was peaceful and all places quiet of gun ’twas’ and bomb ‘booms’, and Gat was going to Lul to bring back his sister who run from war there in Malakal in 2013. Gat had ask Adut, who was beautiful girl of 21, to take him to Lul, because she know the way. She was Dinka from Lul, and she come to live in Malakal because of work of her parents, and she was studying at the University in Malakal, before war start. Gat had also ask Luok, who was young man of same age as himself, to go with him to Lul. Gat also ask Deng, who was one time boyfriend of Adut, to also come, because his sister who run to Lul, liked him. Luok was a short and quiet man of Nuer; while Deng was talking man of Dinka. All these three friends of Gat lived down the slope, and near the bank of White Nile, and Gat was going down this morning to meet them, so they go to Lul one team. But Adut knew only she was going with Gat, and Luok knew only he was going with Gat to Lul, and Deng knew only he was going with Gat. Why Gat did not tell each of them who else was coming, this story will answer. As I say before, the morning was not very cold and not very dark, and Gat come down from his home hurriedly-hurriedly…
I had flipped two pages, and paused there. “Biel,” I said, “is this a real story, or fiction?”
“My Friend,” he said, “is imagined story. Not true. But me I have friends called Adut, Luok and Deng here in camp.”
“Ok. Listen, first of all. For any story you want to tell people, you must be passionate about it. Very passionate—”
“Me I love this story—”
“Just, just listen.”
“You must enjoy telling it. That way, your listeners—or readers, will love it too.”
“Tell me, this story here,” said I, holding the book to him, “what is it about?”
“Is about a boy called Gat in Malakal. One morning not very cold and not very dark, he come down from hill hurriedly-hurriedly.”
“Ok. Is it—is it…no, tell me this, in short, what does it entail?”
“Is about a boy in Malakal. He go to Lul one morning to bring back his sister who run from war.”
#To be continued…
A week goes and languages grow; my stories so.
[The typer of these words is a breaker of English. Creator of words. Attempter of waggish things. Marveler of nature. Enjoyer of life. Lover of strangers. Taster of cultures. Author of Tom James. Editor. Snap-shooter. Storyteller. Future husband. Teacher. Learner. Soon a traveler]