The Beacon of Peace and The Sacred Grove

Duk Padiet – The Beacon of Peace

We arrive at​ Duk Padiet in the morning, after a short flight from Juba. It is the rainy season, and to the pilot’s delight, the dirt landing strip is dry and clear of cattle, although we land right by the market’s cattle byre. I notice as immediately as we dislodge the plane that Duk Padiet has black soil mixed with sand. So when it rains, the sand rises to the surface, preventing muddiness. Duk Padiet is part of the former Duk County of Jonglei State, but since 2016 it became a county, along with Duk Payuel and Panyang. Duk Padiet is breathtakingly beautiful; its population is noticeably young and industrious.

Our hosts warmly receive us. We then take a brisk walk through a bustling market to their compound, where we get a situational briefing and a rundown of the program of the day. The presentation includes an explanation of what transpired the day before. Gunshots roared for a short while, and stray bullets reached the market area as the youth repelled a cattle raid by Murle youth.

Walking through town, I hear both Dinka and Nuer being spoken, almost interchangeably and fluently by everyone, with a sprinkle of Arabic and English, here and there. I learn that the community is composed mainly of the Dinka Nyarweng and Hol, joined by the displaced and seasonal migrants from Gaawar Nuer and Lou Nuer. Duk Padiet suffered much devastation between 2014 – 2015 as a result of the ongoing conflict. The town was deserted entirely at one point. People sought refugee in Bor, Awerial, Juba, Yei, and camps in Uganda. Some families returned. Moreover, many educated young men have also come home from East Africa and work as staff for Catholic Relief Services, the area’s major employer.

I am an invitee to witness the South Sudan Council of Churches’ Action Plan for Peace Community Conversation in Duk Padiet. The openness with which the participants communicate with one another and the ease with which they receive each grouping’s report, considering the gravity of the matters discussed, strikes me. The community conversation tackles the weighty subjects of cattle wrestling, youth unemployment, interference and instigation by political leadership, reconciliation, reparations, integration of IDPs from the neighboring communities, joint policing of the area, among others, effortlessly. It is an indication that there is a real investment in trust-building and that this place is consecrated, consciously and deliberately, as a safe space, as a beacon of peace.

Sadly, I have less than 24 hours to spend in Duk Padiet. However, I am fortunate to converse with Mr. Michael Malual Wuor, the former Commissioner of Duk Padiet, in my humble opinion, a living hero. This man soldiered his way through troubled lands and hostile communities to restore Duk Padiet after its devastation by war. He single-handedly and single-mindedly preserved through the difficulties, ignored the disbelief of many, traversed for days and weeks on foot, negotiated peace between hostile communities, and mobilized the help and solidarity of benefactors, to achieve his noble vision for his county. He is now lending his expertise as a consultant to the APP Community Conversations around South Sudan.

Duk Nyan Piec Dieth – The Sacred Grove

In Juba, before my departure, I am implored by a dear friend, who hails from Duk County, that I shan’t leave the area without going to Duk Nyan Piec Dieth. He is sure to entice me by telling me the legendary story of the grove. That people hear a woman and a newborn voice nightly coming from the forest; the woman singing a lullaby for the babe that is crying. Nyan Piec Dieth means “the girl who just gave birth” in the Dinka language. Legend has it that the girl eloped, but her family did not accept her marriage. After giving birth to her child in her parents’ home, she tries to run away to join her husband. Then either she gets stuck or decides to go live in the forest. She lives in the grove and never returns to the village. She dies there, and since then, people would hear her voice and a child’s cry at night.

So, of course, by the end of the day’s program, I announce my intention to go to the grove. I quickly mobilize a couple of guides, including the former Commissioner, and three people from the organizing team to accompany me on my “pilgrimage” to what we term later, the “Sacred Grove.” As we approach the forest, we find groups of people from the town sprinkled on the high ground at the woods’ mouth, noticeably on cell phones. Our guides say, “This is the best place to catch a signal in the whole town.”

The onlookers seem amused by our pilgrimage. We enter, and the site suddenly becomes hallowed ground. Our guides tell us many things about the grove. Supposedly, no bullet can penetrate the forest, and that many snakes that don’t harm people live here.  Moreover, we see a tree that seems to regenerate. Legend has it that no one can cut a tree in the grove, all of which revive when dying. People who try to cross the forest to attack the city cannot pass it, and the list goes on.

They tell us the clan’s spiritual leaders did some rituals in the grove in the past, but the people, now Christianized, no longer believe in this place’s legends, nor in its sacredness. We spend the night in the compound facing Duk Nyan Piec Dieth; I keep alert to hear the woman and the babe’s voices, to no avail. To my apprehension, I hear a few gunshots, but I am lulled to sleep gently by images of the “Sacred Grove” on my mind. We leave for Juba in the morning.

Here are some pictures from the trip:

© Apuk Ayuel Mayen 2018. All rights reserved.

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