By Deng Mayik Atem
Most of us love music. We can sit listening and just feel joy. Well, I really shouldn’t say sit; usually the rhythm gets me and I want to get up and move with it. Often the words and the melody also engage me to the point that I am singing or humming along. Yes! Go for it!!
When I listen to the music of South Sudan, it takes me back to my childhood in the villages and especially back to the dances we had in Kakuma in Kenya when I was a refugee. We would gather and share our music; songs from different tribes, from different regions. What excitement. What pride!
Today, here in the United States, I do not see my fellow South Sudanese dancing those dances. I do not hear them playing that music. I seldom here those wonderful rhythms. Instead, I hear the music of Black America. Oh, much of it is great music. The cultures from which it comes are themselves deep and meaningful. But they are not the culture of my roots. They are not the sounds, smells, tastes, and rhythms of Africa.
I worry that we, the South Sudanese living in America, are not holding tight to our own unique and special country, that we are not celebrating her holidays, eating her food, wearing her fashions, and most importantly dancing to her music. Being connected to one’s past helps give direction to life. Identity is important because it is the foundation on which we build. Without a sense of identity, it is difficult to have purpose and it is so difficult to resist the easy temptation, the simple fix, for instance substituting drugs and alcohol for accomplishment. Hiding in stupor because perseverance in the face of difficulty can be so overwhelming.
Hybrid Americanism is strong Americanism. Consider Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Native Americans, Arab-Americans, Indian-Americans; and the list goes on and on. Finding strength in one’s heritage is in fact a basic part of being an American. Sadly, because of the history of slavery, too few of our Black brothers and sisters have a real knowledge of their roots. While we can think of ourselves as Nuer, Dinka, or Bongo and can locate our heritage in specific areas of South Sudan, most Black Americans can only point towards the immense Africa continent and say, “Well, somewhere over there.” No wonder they have so often lost their ways. And, for that reason, we should especially honor those Black Americans who have overcome and who serve as a beacon.
Of all the American leaders of color to whom we look, nobody is as important to us as Barack Obama. What a monumental success, what a great leader. However, too few of us take time to realize that as part of his journey to greatness President Obama went to Kenya to reconnect not just with family but also with his roots. Yes, before he could lead, he had to know who he is and from where he came.
Don’t we all?
Don’t we, the South Sudanese Americans living here in the United States need to connect to our culture and to make sure it is part of our children’s lives; that we help them to know their heritage. How ironic is it that, for example, we here in Phoenix live in a state that has nearly one million head of cattle and yet we in our community have no contact with cows, that basic symbol of the Nuer, Dinka, Mundari and others? How many of our children are learning our languages, our music, our culture. How many are eating hot pockets instead of Kombo; asking for pizza instead of Awal-Wal?
Today, I am listening to the music of Teresa Nyan-Kol Mathiang. My feet want to dance. I want to tilt my head back and join her songs. I close my eyes and I can feel that I am home. I am in the village of my childhood. I am part of the celebration that is my heritage. South Sudan, my homeland.
~Deng Mayik Atem
Publisher of Ramciel Magazine