|The road to bliss.|
Six hours had passed, still no sign of the village. The rented mini-van chugged lazily along the unpaved road. The sun was high, and Jane could feel its burning rays painfully penetrating her delicate pale skin through the window. She was getting more and more anxious, and could feel her throat going dry. She emptied her water bottle two hours into the trip. What she would have given for a single drop of water to quench her thirst.
“How much longer until we reach Panyak, Yar?”
The six-foot-two Sudanese lady sitting next to her smiled with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
“It won’t be long, madam.”
This was a mistake from the beginning, Jane thought, and she wanted to back out. But the Prophet said she would find the man she would marry in the village along the Nile. She felt stupid for allowing him to talk her into it, but her curiosity got the best of her. What if the Prophet was right? Being forty and still unmarried used not to bother her a lot until she came to Sudan where girls are married off at the young age of fifteen, and where you can’t find unmarried women older than twenty-five. It was not easy being a forty-year-old spinster in this place. She had seen and experienced it herself—the endless taunting, the advances from old men, the indecent proposals to be someone else’s fourth wife. It’s like a punishment, in a way.
“It will be okay, madam. He will be there. He is waiting for you with twenty-five cows, as promised.” Yar gave her a reassuring tap on her shoulder.
Jane couldn’t help smiling. At last, after six years of living in Sudan, somebody—someone single and young—finally agreed to marry her, though she hasn’t seen him yet. She would never do this kind of thing back in the US. Her friends and family would go ballistic! But when in Sudan, do as the Sudanese do. So here she was, travelling almost the whole day to get her prince and claim her cattle, her bride price.
“Normally, they should give you at least 100 cows, madam, but because you are older than him and finished university—”
“I understand, my sister. Don’t worry too much.”
Jane thought she wasn’t even worth anything, for in the Dinka culture, a woman’s worth is based on her age, height, and education. The younger, taller, and less educated, the more valuable they are, as they are able to bear more children, do more work, and obey their husbands without question. So Jane had to settle for twenty-five cows. She didn’t even mind not getting one, but when in Sudan . . .
Her back was almost breaking, her bladder on the verge of bursting, when the rickety mini-van screeched to a halt, creating a dust cloud that obliterated her view of the village.
|A typical homestead in Sudan.|
“We are here, madam. Come with me.”
Yar led Jane to a tukul (mud hut) where her fiancé was waiting. It was pitch black inside, and she couldn’t see anything. She thought she was alone until a rough, strong hand gently tapped her left shoulder three times—a sign of respect.
“You are welcome, my bride. Thank you for accepting my invitation,” came a low, rapsy voice.
When Jane’s eyes adapted to the darkness, she saw a profile of a handsome ebony man towering over her, clad only with goatskin loin cloth and colorful beads around his neck and wrists. As she looked up and saw the smile on his face, she felt something stir inside her. He was smiling at her, and for the first time in years, she was happy. But suddenly the smile faded, replaced by a curious and almost hostile frown.
“Why, what’s wrong?”
He held her by the elbow and dragged her outside. Then he looked at her face and screamed in his local language, causing a big commotion, especially among the women. He was enraged, a sudden, unexplainable anger overwhelming him.
“What is wrong? Did I do something wrong?”
“Your face,” Yar whispered, with a look of genuine concern.
“What about it?”
“It’s too . . . plain. He cannot marry you like that. His friends will laugh at him. If you come with me and do as I say, I will assure you he will marry you.”
Before Jane could protest, a group of women led her to another tukul where an old man was waiting. He motioned for Jane to lie down on a straw mat on the dirt floor, and without a word started his job, while the other women gathered around to watch.
Jane could only shed silent tears during the entire ordeal, as wincing and crying would make her unworthy of joining the community. She could not afford to lose face in front of all the women who looked up to her. After forty excruciating minutes, the old man stopped, sighed loudly, and limped his way out of the hut.