The Ants of God


Arts & Culture

The budding South Sudanese community in Omaha, Nebraska.

nuer still

A still from The Nuer, a 1971 documentary.

More than a hundred years ago, my relatives emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Nebraska, thus escaping the privilege of becoming fodder for the aristocracy’s canons. Why Nebraska? The railroad advertising pictured illustrations of the thick loam of the prairie, calculated to resemble their homeland’s. The land was theirs for free if they worked extremely hard on it for five years, and many did, and prospered.

This century, the Nuer from South Sudan have immigrated to the same region, but they aren’t so fortunate. Having escaped one of the world’s worst war zones, endured extremely harsh conditions in refugee camps, and traveled eight thousand miles to resettle, the Nuer face poor Nebraska neighborhoods policed by gangs like the Bloods and the Crips.

The Nuer fled fighting in a very remote area in South Sudan, much of it accessible only by boat or on foot. I know. I walked into the region thirty-five years ago, lugging in heavy sound equipment to make a sequel to The Nuer, the highest grossing ethnographic film of the time. The original, from 1971, was extremely beautiful, shot by Hilary Harris, Robert Gardner, and George Breidenbach. It documented the traditional Nuer lifestyle as depicted by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the British academic who founded the discipline of social anthropology on a study of their culture. The sequel to it was never finished, but I translated and published Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, a selection of their songs, their most complex art form.

Never would I have imagined that people from so far away would move within a hundred miles of my birthplace in Ogallala, Nebraska. So many resettled in the state that it now has the world’s largest population of Nuer outside South Sudan. Had I impressed them with talk of a landscape similar to their own, the way the broadsides had lured my relatives? It couldn’t be—all I’d had to do was mention snow to the Africans and their enthusiasm waned. Originally, resettlement agencies sent the Nuer to rural Minnesota, Virginia, Arizona, California, and upstate New York. They had to establish themselves quickly: all our government gave them was a loan for the plane ticket from Africa, less than three hundred dollars cash, and food stamps. They had to start paying back the loans within six months—a tall order when you’re traumatized by war, not yet fluent in English, and largely unaware of American customs. Through informal cell phone networking, the Nuer converged on Nebraska. Cheap housing attracted them—and openings in the meatpacking industry, that mainstay of immigrant labor. In many Nuer families, both spouses work two shifts. The slaughterhouse was a psychologically difficult workplace, as they had just fled a war that had more civilian casualties than World War II. The slaughterhouse worker I spoke to was bothered by the screams of the half-dead cattle while their hides were ripped off with hooks. You are supposed to wait until the eyes tell you what to do, he said.

Economic reliance on cow culture is a bit of an embarrassment to urban Nebraskans, with four times as many cattle than people in the state. Cow culture for the Nuer, however, is everything. In the film The Nuer, the barren savannah is filled with cattle staked to the ground, lowing. African Nuer love cattle and give each animal a name appropriate to its hide and horns. Rather than eat them, they breed them for bridewealth. During my stay in Nuerland, when one suitor became too ardent, I reminded him that my father would have to send his cattle for the wedding by airplane. He did not see that as a serious impediment. A young Nuer in Nebraska now sends money in remittances home to South Sudan to buy cattle for his marriage, on average five thousand dollars a year out of what is most likely a minimum wage job. After accomplishing this, he saves up again to fly to South Sudan and collect his wife.


I gave a talk at the state university a few years ago on the parallels between Nebraska and South Sudan. Flat land, flat river—the Platte that bisects the state is not so dissimilar from that part of the Nile. Both parts of the world host big fish (two hundred pound Nile perch to Nebraska’s hundred pound catfish) and big birds (whooping cranes and pelicans nest in both Nebraska and South Sudan). I showed slides of the sod houses the early white settlers built and the beautiful mud-and-wattle structures of the Sudanese Nuer. Living was difficult for my ancestors, too—eighty-hour weeks, no electricity, little plumbing, few cars. In exchange, they had star-studded endless skies, a humane pace of living, and song.

Everyone sang in Nuerland, too—their own songs, their neighbors’, and their forebears. If they wanted accompaniment, they dug a hole for a bass drum and strung it with a fret made of giraffe hair. My great-great grandparents owned a violin and a psalm book. They, too, doted on their cattle, fastening little wooden clappers around their necks, not unlike the way the Nuer threaded tassels through the horns of their cattle.  

I ended the presentation by reading a few of their songs in translation. When I asked for a member of the audience to sing one in the original, no one volunteered. Was it because of the news they’d had right before arriving, of a Nuer woman committing suicide? The adjustment to such a radically different way of life, and the discovery of American racism, has driven refugees to suicide, especially women who often find themselves shut out of their children’s lives linguistically, if not culturally. Attempting suicide for my ancestors was so common on the frontier that the asylum was often the first public building erected. I was very surprised when, at the last minute, one of the business-suited Nuer men strode up to the podium—and brought down the house.


Martha Kiir sings for Bob Holman’s Endangered Languages project. Photo: Terese Svoboda

Some of the girls in the audience had been involved in The Quilted Conscience, a film about teenage girls from South Sudan I helped produce. They made a quilt with local Nebraska women, sewing together designs that represented their hopes for their future and their memories of the past. In South Sudan, the possibility of dying at childbirth was higher than a girl going to secondary school. But these immigrant kids had ambitions. One of the girls proved herself in high school by playing football with the boys—in Nebraska, a state where men rule the ball. To reward such perseverance, I give a small scholarship to high school graduates to those who honor the Nuer tradition in poetry of song. I look for someone who can see the triumph of what it is to become an American, and who also feels the poignance of a lost homeland. The immigrant writer is essential to American literature because too often its citizens forget why they live here, and not elsewhere. With airplanes and life rafts, nationhood seems so porous—unless you really need to get away, like the children caught at Mexico’s border, or the South Sudanese Lost Boys who walked their way out of war.

Buey Ran Tut arrived in Omaha at age eleven. Obama-handsome, he gave a TED talk in October. After a decade as a refugee, Tut was vice president of the student body at the University of Nebraska, a member of the Omaha Public Library Board, a district executive for the Boy Scouts, and co-founder of Aqua Africa, a nonprofit concerned with clean drinking water. He and his partner, Buay Wiyual, a Dinka—traditionally rivals in Africa—have drilled sixteen wells in South Sudan in only four years. His is hardly an isolated example of Nuer efforts to help themselves, just the most visible to Nebraskans, who have their own water problems.


This July, a woman named Nyadhiel Joak found me on Facebook. Thirty-five years earlier, her father, Ret, had fed and housed me in Malakal, a stop of over 100,000 South Sudanese on the confluence of two branches of the Nile. I was collecting Nuer song and Ret was a government official. “I am a big man,” he told me. “I care for so many.” Along with foreign guests like myself, he housed at least ten of his extended family alongside his own four children. Joak wanted to know what the inside of his house looked like. I told her I slept in a room with a single iron bedstead without a mattress; Ret, his wife Nyagak, and three of their children slept in the only other room. Everyone else found a place on the cement slab of his porch or in the dusty backyard. Late into the night, Ret’s colleagues from work convened in that backyard, to eat and drink, to plan political moves, to flirt with the women, and to sing. “The ants of god,” they called themselves in one of the songs I recorded there—a phrase that emphasized their vulnerability to the harsh climate of the savannah, their capacity for hard work, and their cooperative yet anarchic nature. Evans-Pritchard observed of them: “There is no master and no servant in their society, but only equals who regard themselves as God’s noblest creation.”

After my stay with Ret and his family, I searched for more songs, traveling further south to Nasir. Three months later, a single-engine plane counting cattle for tax purposes landed in my front yard and offered to fly me out. The annual drought had begun, and there were food riots every morning. Unlike most Nuer in exile, I could go home. Serious warfare broke out soon after I left. Ten years later, Ret Chol was murdered in the civil war before he could take up his post as an ambassador. His family fled to Egypt, Australia, Canada. Malakal was burned to the ground.


In 2011, the year before South Sudan became a new nation, I gave the vice president, Riek Machar, a copy of my translations of songs. I sat next to him on a couch in Juba airport’s VIP lounge and we chatted for half an hour—I played the white woman’s card, since he had been married to an Englishwoman years earlier. Affable yet cagey, Machar asked why my book was missing the original Nuer for the songs. Embarrassed, I explained that the tiny press that published the book so many years ago had no way to reproduce the Nuer orthography. I spent the next summer producing a coffee-table version with the Nuer transcription from my original manuscript. A year later, I found someone to deliver it to Machar’s office.

Civil war broke out a week later. Machar fled Juba as the putative leader of a rebellion. South Sudan now has tens of thousands dead, 1.5 million displaced, five million on the brink of starvation. The World Food Program has been attacked while trying to feed thirty-seven thousand hungry people. One side has stockpiled thirty-eight million dollars in Chinese arms, sold to them by the oil pipeline’s biggest stakeholder. Amnesty International is begging the UN Security Council to impose an embargo. The political issue of the war appears to be the states rights versus federal, a struggle the U.S. should be able to understand, an especially acute question during our first years as a nation. Three Nebraskans were among the first to die in the fighting that claimed twenty thousand Nuer in December. They had returned to help set up the country.

In Nebraska, the Bloods and the Crips and other Omaha gangs view the Nuer immigrants as naive, as hicks from the boondocks. The state has the highest rate of black homicide victimization in the country. Driving along the interstate, a Nuer friend pointed out for me which ridges were helpful for snipers, what terrain would put someone unfamiliar with the prairie at a disadvantage. He also mentioned that along with lullabies and dancing lyrics, the book I gave Riek contained a section of songs by Nuer prophets that traditionally rallied those involved in warfare. This was one time I hoped poetry did nothing.

Terese Svoboda’s biography Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet will be published next year. When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley: Selected and New Poems will be published this year.