Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel





     After I was born, the seventh of nine children, my mother and

I returned from hospital to her simple string bed, in a cement block

house in a little town called Wau. My parents named me

Alek, after one of my beloved great aunts. Alek means ‘black

spotted cow’, one of the most common and well-loved types

of cow in the Sudan. It’s also a symbol of good luck for my

people, the Dinka. I got my long body from my father – I’m

nearly six feet tall – and my mother gave me my smile. My

inky skin came from both of them.

     When a child is born to the Dinka the family has a party.

When I was born, family and friends came from all over,

thanks to the bush telegraph. There were very few telephones

where I grew up, so my father mentioned my birth to someone

at the market. And that woman told a man who was

delivering rice to a place up the road. He told someone there,

who was taking a herd of cattle south towards the villages.

And pretty soon the news of my birth had spread far and

wide. Some of my relatives travelled for hours in the backs of

trucks, or walked across miles of barren landscape to reach our


    The women got together and made oils and perfumes from

herbs and bark, which they soaked for days and mixed in special

ways that only the elders know. As my mother tells it, the

house was filled with women in their traditional robes and

everything smelled wonderful. For two days these women

cared for my mother and me. They fed her a special porridge

and chicken soup, and wiped her brow with damp cloths. She

didn’t have to do anything but lie back, take special baths and

luxuriate in sensual smells. Then the men brought a black goat

to sacrifice, according to our tradition. Everyone ate good

millet cakes and other sweets, which were such a rare treat in

my family. As custom dictated, my mother stayed in the house

for forty full days and nights after she gave birth to me.

It was a rare moment of peace in my country, and I was

blessed with a very special welcome into the world. A Dinka


     My people have lived in the southern Sudan for thousands of

years. We’re related to two gracile East African groups, called

the Neur and the Masai, that make up the Nilotic people, who

are known for their dark skin and tall, lean bodies. There are

about twenty Dinka tribes altogether, and each is divided into

many smaller groups, with villages spread over a huge area. My

family is from the region called Bahr al Ghazal, in the southwestern

part of the country. Bahr el Ghazal is also the name of

a river that meanders through the swamps and ironstone

plateaus until it joins the White Nile at a lake called, simply,

No. The White Nile goes on to meet the Blue Nile at

Khartoum, and proceeds from there to Egypt in the river we

know as the Nile.

     Based on the stories my parents and grandparents told, it

seems that the Sudan has always been a violent land. In the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slave traders came through

this territory, nabbing Dinkas and others and taking them

north to be sold in the Arab countries. It is said that children

from the south have even been enslaved and sold in the

twenty-first century.

     The main thing to understand about my country is that it

has always been split between the Islamic Arab north and the

Animist and Christian south. They don’t ever seem to mix that

well and the north has always tried to dominate the south. The

British, who ruled the Sudan from the late nineteenth century

until the 1950s governed the north and south separately, but in

the 1940s, just before independence, the British gave in to

pressure from the Islamic leaders in the north to unite the

country. The northern government then proceeded to impose

Islamic culture on the southern people, most of whom who

weren’t Muslim or Arabic. Of course, there’s money involved

too. The Sudan’s vast oil fields are in the south, along with a

lot of fertile land and water.

     The south has never wanted to be dominated by the

Muslims in the north; in 1950 a brutal civil war broke out and

lasted until 1972. Then, in that year, both sides signed the

Addis Ababa Accord, which guaranteed autonomy for the

southern Sudan. I was born five years later.

Since we’ve always been semi-nomadic, totally dependent

on the weather and whipped by the forces of political change

around us, the Dinka are used to living through cycles of wars

and uprisings followed by peace and prosperity, hunger and

then bounty. In the wet season rural Dinka out in the villages

live in conical, thatch-roofed huts, growing millet and other

crops. In the dry season they take their cattle to riverside

camps. Us Dinka are born expecting change.

     The Dinka have never had a central government or anything

like that, except those imposed on use by the leaders of

the Sudan. Instead, we are divided into clans, which are based

on families, and Dinka are very aware of which clan they

belong to. Some of the more important clans will have leaders

who influence the whole tribe. But in general, the clans are

split into smaller groups and each of these will have control just

enough land to provide water and pasture for their beloved


     These animals are so essential to the Dinka that even though

my parents raised us in a small, relatively cosmopolitan town

called Wau, far from their home villages, my mother still kept

about fifteen head of long-horned cattle in our courtyard.

Like my father Athian Wek, my mother Akuol Parek grew

up in a thatched hut in a village south of Wau. My mother has

a different name because in our culture children always take –

and keep – their father’s name. By the time my parents married

the civil war between the north and south was in full force and

they had to flee. They roamed eastern Africa, living for long

periods of time in refugee camps and towns and cities in Chad,

Kenya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. That was

just how life was for them. They had to build a life on the run,

so the speak.

    My mother gave birth to her first children while she was in

exile. When peace eventually came to the south my parents

returned to the Sudan and settled in Wau, which was then a

town of about seventy thousand people, roughly three hundred

miles from the Ugandan border. They chose Wau because it

was relatively sophisticated, compared to the villages where

they had grown up. While they had a deep respect for their

Dinka inheritance, their time as refugees had shown my parents

more of the world than they would otherwise have seen.

     They realized that they wanted their children to have a good

education and the freedom to marry who they wanted: most

marriages in the villages were arranged. In fact, my mother

defied her parents to marry my father, who wasn’t deemed to

come from a family that was wealthy enough. My parents saw

that the Sudan, and the world at large, was in the midst of a

great transition and they wanted us to be raised free from some

of the more restrictive Dinka tribal customs – such as

polygamy and facial scarring – so we could prosper in the

modern world. They chose to settle in Wau which, while

having a large Dinka population that was respectful of its tribal

customs, had good schools and businesses.

     Wau had originally been settled by slave traders in the nineteenth

century, but had become a centre for trading cotton,

tobacco, peanuts, cereals, fruit and vegetables, and also had a

few small workshops. I loved walking by the blacksmith’s shop,

where the smiths forged metal over fires built into holes in the

ground. They’d heat the metal until is was glowing red and

then bang it with a hammer.

A lot of Dinka lived there, but so did a lot of Fertit, Jo-Luo,

and Arab Muslims from the north. It is a diverse place, where

people really get along – at least when they aren’t at war with

each other. Much of the town was destroyed in anti-government

riots in 1965. The government rebuilt the buildings,

including a strategically important airport, after the peace

treaty of 1972. There was one modest hotel and a little

cinema. By the time I was born, in 1977, Wau was a nice small

town where women shopped for food in the market and vultures

prowled the streets looking for scraps.

     I grew up in what was considered a middle-class family in

Wau. The middle class was fairly large in the town and was

mostly made up of doctors, teachers and government workers

who lived in houses made of stone and zinc. There were plenty

of people poorer than us, who lived in neighbourhoods where

the houses had thatched roofs and the adults worked in the

fields or did other hard labour. There weren’t that many people

who were richer than us, aside from a handful who owned local

factories or other businesses. I always felt very comfortable with

what we had, although most people in Europe or America

would have called us poor, since we didn’t have electricity or an

indoor toilet, let alone a stereo, a TV or any kitchen appliances.

We had enough to eat, a solid house and simple clothes. For

that we felt fortunate. Before I was born Wau had running

water, but the government cut if off at some point and the

system fell into disrepair. After that, everyone had to rely on

well pumps. It wasn’t a bad life at all. You just had to know how

to make the most of what you had. We painted an old oil drum

in our yard in bright colours and used it to collect the rain that

fell on our roof. That rainwater tasted delicious.

     My father Athian worked at the local board of education.

He left the house each morning wearing a suit and tie and carrying

a black leather briefcase. He was a very stylish man,

about six feet, five inches tall, slender and handsome. A real

gentleman. He didn’t talk much, but when he spoke he was

always straightforward. He expected you to listen to what he

had to say and I learned early on that even though he was usually

easygoing he wasn’t one to mess with.

     I remember once, he told me to go out and sweep the

veranda, but I refused. Without a word he stepped into the

yard, pulled a switch from a bush, and made me stand in front

of him as he peeled off each leaf and twig to make a good

whip. Then he lashed the backs of my legs three times and told

me to never disobey him again. I don’t think ever I did.

My mother Akuol was always talking, always smiling, but

she was also strict. My parents were a good match. They’d

known each other since they were teenagers and a deep river

of trust ran between them. Dinka men can sometimes be

domineering, and my father was no slouch as the man of the

house, but he was different from other Dinka men. For

instance, he chose not to be polygamous, even though he

could easily have done so since taking multiple wives is

accepted – even expected – in Dinka culture. He always consulted

my mother before making big decisions. They were a

real team. Except when it came to money. In that respect my

mother was the dictator of the family. On payday my father

would hand his money straight over to her and she would

organize the rent and buy the food.

     A few times a year she would take us to the market to buy

clothes. Sometimes they would be new; other times we’d buy

from the vendors who bought used clothes by the pound and

sold them by the piece in little towns like ours. These are the

same clothes that people in wealthy countries dump into collection

boxes. We would often wear strange shirts advertising

Manchester United football team or Jimmy’s Rib Joint in

Harrison, Kentucky. We didn’t care: the clothes were inexpensive

but well made and we couldn’t read much English anyway.

My father was so tall it was difficult to find clothes to fit

him. My mother would pick up some fabric swatches from a

vendor in the market and they would decide whether he

wanted a lightweight suit or one in a more formal fabric,

checked or striped, and then they’d go to the tailor.

In the evenings my father would sit in a shaded chair on the

veranda and have a cup of tea while he listened to the BBC

World Service on his little battery-powered radio. Sometimes

I would sit with my father and listen to the radio, but usually

my mother would intervene and tell me to finish my homework.

Education was very important to my parents and my

father would back her up completely.

     ‘What did you learn today?’ he asked me every night at

dinner. ‘Did you learn how to rule the world?’

     ‘No,’ I would have to say.

     ‘Well then, get in there and do your homework.’

     And that’s what I did.

     We lived in a two-bedroom house with a veranda and a

walled-in courtyard with a garden and space for the cows.

There were four boys in the men’s bedroom with my father

and five girls in the women’s bedroom with my mother.

The boys were: Athian, who was born in 1961, when my

parents were refugees in Liberia; Wek, who was born somewhere

between Liberia and Zaïre in 1966, when my parents

were on the move as refugees; Mayen, who was born in

Liberia in 1969, and Deng, who was born in Wau in 1982.

He’s the tallest of the bunch now, at six feet and seven inches,

compared to my measly five feet, eleven-and-a-half inches.

Besides me, the girls were: Ajok, who was born in Uganda

in 1964; Adaw, who was born in Uganda in 1972; Akuol, who

was born in Uganda in 1974 and given our mother’s name;

and Atheng, who was born in Wau in 1979.

     By the time I was a young girl Ajok, Wek and Athian had

grown up and left home, either to study in Juba, near the

Ugandan border, or to live in Khartoum. When I was nine

years old Ajok was living in London with her husband, a

Sudanese man who was training as an architect over there.

There were still plenty of us children to keep our parents busy.

Our yard consisted of hard-packed dirt, which kept snakes and

other animals away. There were papaya and mango trees out

there, and my mother kept a few rows of okra and tomato

plants. There was no plumbing or electricity so we used an

outhouse in the courtyard, with newspaper or leaves instead of

toilet paper. In the kitchen there were a few stew pots and a

griddle. Our rooms were furnished with stools and chairs, and

we slept in beds made of woven string.

      I can’t say that we had much in the way of luxuries, except

that we had more than a lot of people. Poverty is relative and,

compared to many people, those who sometimes had trouble

putting food on their tables, we were doing really well. Yet we

also had neighbours who had generators for electricity, hot

running water and other comforts we couldn’t imagine having.

The truth was, we never thought about these things. We rarely

feasted but we never went hungry. We always had clothes, even

if they were hand-me-downs.

     I grew up in the typical Dinka way, following my mother

from here to there until I started school. She had a strong

entrepreneurial spirit, and was constantly trying to make

money on the side. She always had something growing in the

garden that she’d sell. Or she would lease land and raise crops

such as peanuts to sell in the market. She even brewed liquor

in a makeshift still. People loved to buy her liquor, which was

pure and strong and tasted good – so they said. She never

drank it and I never tried it. My father did, however.

     Occasionally he would meet his friends for a drink or two. My

mother would always be furious with him.

     ‘What did I tell you?’ she’d shout. ‘What are you drinking


     My dad would just kind of smile and tell her that he’d have

a drink once in a while if he wanted to and if she didn’t like it

she should just go on about her business and let him be. He so

rarely drank it wasn’t really an issue, but my mother hated

people being drunk on principle. To her, it was as bad as being


     There was always work to be done. Every morning my

mother would get up before everyone else and milk her cows.

Then she’d wake us up and give us a cup of tea and a bit of

bread, which is usually all we had for breakfast – we never ate

more than two meals a day and often ate only one, or even

none, if money was tight or if nothing was ripe in the garden.

This was the accepted way to eat and nobody thought twice

about it. It takes a long time to die of starvation and I learned

early on not to complain if we were forced to miss a meal, or

even a few of them. A bit of hunger isn’t going to kill a person,

even if it does sap your strength and spirit. It certainly makes

you appreciate the food that you do receive. After drinking our

tea we would make our beds and tidy up the rooms. Then

we’d sweep the house and wash the floors before going out

into the yard.

     ‘Don’t forget to pick up the manure,’ my mother would say.

     Now, the Dinka have a special relationship with cows and so

the thought of picking up manure isn’t such a bad one for us.

Cow dung is really quite clean – after all, it is just grass and

water. And it’s not just the dung. Sometimes, a village boy

herding cattle will stick his head under a cow when it’s urinating

so that the liquid goes over his hair and body. That’s

because cow urine kills lice and keeps mosquitoes away. It’s just

a different way of looking at the world. If you think about it,

isn’t that boy clever to take care of his infestation that way,

since medicines and insecticides are so scarce in the countryside?

It didn’t really bother me to reach down and pick up the

manure with my hands and throw it into a pile in the corner

of the yard. It didn’t even smell bad. We’d leave the manure to

dry while we went to school and then in the evening we

would burn it so the smoke would keep the flies and mosquitoes

away. Then we’d rub the ashes onto the cows’ skin to keep

the ticks at bay. Sometimes would use the ash – which had

been purified by being burned – as toothpaste. We didn’t have

plastic brushes in those days; we chewed on sticks until they

went soft and then we would rub them along our teeth and

gums. The sticks worked well on their own, but worked even

better with the powdered dung. Years later, when I was

twenty-six, I went to the dentist for the first time. He said that

I had incredibly healthy teeth, so I’m definitely an advocate of

sticks and dung powder for good oral health! Although I admit

that when I left Africa I started using a toothbrush and toothpaste,

since I no longer had cows.

     My mother was full of love, and treated us well. In general,

Dinka children are expected to listen to their elders and keep

their mouths shut. This is especially true in the villages. My

parents were usually pretty easygoing and didn’t demand too

much of us, but they did expect us to be respectful. My

mother loved us but raised us with an iron fist – sometimes

backed up by a stick she’d use to if we got too far out of line.

Still somehow, when I was young, I got it in my head that I

could do what I liked. I was a tomboy, always climbing trees

and walls and sometimes I just wouldn’t listen. I liked a girl

called Sarah who lived near us neighbour and sometimes I’d

sneak out after dark, climbing over the back walls until I got to

her house, so we could play games and sing songs in her yard.

One night I came home streaked with dirt form the packeddirt

walls and my mother said, ‘Look at you, you’ve ruined

your clothes with all that climbing.’

     She was angry. I ran and tried to hide but she wasn’t playing

around. She walked out into the yard and snapped a branch off

a bush. Then she found me hiding behind the rainwater barrel.

It all happened so fast my butt was stinging before I could run


     Being beaten like that was normal in my culture. Everybody

whipped their children to keep them in line. Most, like my

parents, would only do it when they felt it was absolutely necessary.

The teachers at school would do it too. It wasn’t until I

went to a school run by Italian nuns that I realised that not all

adults whipped children.

     That school was my favourite. Like so many of the good

things in our town, it was operated by Christian missionaries

from Europe rather than by the government. These people

came from all over the world to help improve our lives, little

by little. The world knew that the civil war had destroyed

much of our country and had turned vast numbers into

refugees, many of whom ended up in Wau with few prospects

for the future. Aid organisations sent volunteers to help the

people who were in need. Often they were missionaries who

wanted to convert us to their religions, and many times they

succeeded, which was why there are so many Christian Dinka.

But some of the organisations didn’t bother with God talk and

just got on with simple plans to make things better. UNICEF

did one of the best things ever seen in Wau when they built a

series of well pumps across town. I’ll forever be grateful for that

clean water. I was lucky they built a pump near our house.

Many people in the Sudan walk for hours every day to collect

water, but we just had to go down the road.

     As I got older, my mother started sending me to the pump

for water every morning and evening, which I enjoyed. I had

to stay at home after school, working or doing lessons, so

going to the well was one of the few times I’d get to see my

friends. We’d chat about things – our teachers, other kids – or

play games. Once, when we were playing, I was thrown in the

trough that collected the water and had to walk home soaking

wet. My mother didn’t like that.

     More rarely I would be able to sneak off to a place that I loved.

Near the well, a path led up across the grass to the highest part

of town. Great spreading acacia trees shaded the trail and there

were tall lulu trees on the hill. Sometimes I’d see women gathering

the small lulu nuts. Later they would press the nuts to get

shea butter, which is prized as a moisturiser. There, on the hill,

I could see for miles across the vast plain that surrounded Wau.

I’d sit in the grass and scan the horizon for aeroplanes coming

in to land at the airport. The silver glint of sunlight hitting the

wings would mesmerise me and I’d lose myself in imagining

where the plane had been and what kind of people were on

board. Well-dressed foreigners from somewhere far away, I

knew. Farther than Khartoum. The other side of the world,

perhaps. I loved my home town, my family and our house, but

I also loved to imagine flying through the deep blue sky heading

somewhere exciting.

     I knew what that was like because when I was only five I

flew in one of those planes, all by myself, when I was sent for

medical treatment in Khartoum. I’d had serious psoriasis all

over my body since I was baby. No one knew what to do

about it. It made my entire body itch and I’d scratch my skin

until it bled. Often it would get infected and ooze pus. There

were scabs all over my legs, arms and chest, even on my face.

The palms of my hands would get cracked and sore and it felt

better to keep them closed so the wounds didn’t stretch.

‘Alek, open your hands,’ my mother always said. ‘If you

keep them closed they’re going to heal that way and you’ll

never get them open again.’

     She hated seeing me suffer. When I felt like crying from the

pain I would sneak off to a corner where she couldn’t see me,

because when she did she’d look like she was going to start

crying too. I even had it on the bottoms of my feet and walking

on the open sores just made it worse. Sometimes I could

see the meaty part of my flesh through the cracks, and all the

oozing liquid, and I’d feel so ashamed. But I just had to get

used to it. My skin turned ashy and white. My mother shaved

my head and rubbed Vaseline into my scalp to keep it from

flaking away.

     It’s so strange that I grew up to make my living off of my

looks, after so many years of looking like a monster. I’m lucky

we didn’t have many mirrors.

My mother became desperate because nothing she did

helped. She dressed me in my only good dress, a cotton shift

with thin yellow and pink stripes and patch pockets, and we

walked down to a little wooden storefront near the market.

She rapped on the shutter that covered the window.

     ‘Yes, one minute, please,’ came the shopkeeper’s voice.

     This wasn’t our usual store. The man opened the shutter

and peered at us with bloodshot eyes. Behind him were

narrow shelves lined with beer and liquor bottles. A plastic

bucket full of matches was on the counter, along with a tin cup

full of loose cigarettes.

     ‘Give me six cigarettes and a small bottle of the cane liquor,’

my mother said.

     I was shocked.

     ‘But you don’t drink!’ I said.

     ‘And I don’t smoke, either,’ she replied.

     ‘What’s that for then?’

     ‘No need for questions from a little girl called Alek. That

little girl’s always got questions. You’ll find out in time.’

     The shopkeeper wrapped the cigarettes in a piece of newspaper

and then did the same with the bottle before handing

them to my mother, who quickly hid them in her pocket.

We continued down the hill towards a part of Wau that I’d

always been forbidden to go near. It was on the far side of the

railway line, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Country

people lived there, often in houses made of mud or even just in

tents of sticks and cloth. Children ran around naked in the dirt.

We came to a small farm, with yellow flowers growing off a

vine along the fence and herbs in pots near the porch of a little

wooden building.

     ‘Here we are,’ my mother said.


     ‘There’s a man here who’s going to look at your skin. He’s

got special powers.’

     I felt so nervous my stomach got jumpy. Then I smelled the

goats: that sour, stale, stomach-churning goat smell. I could see

a herd of them and a bucket of goat’s milk sat on a rock in the

sun collecting flies. I wanted to throw up.

     My mother called out.

     ‘What do you want with me?’ came a man’s voice.

     ‘I came with my daughter,’ my mother said.

     He opened the door and smoke from his cooking fire

drifted out. Then he followed the smoke, looking like something

out of a fairy tale. He had matted grey dreadlocks, a

wispy beard with beads plaited into it and yellowish eyes. His

raggedy clothes were held together with twine and he wore a

necklace of feathers. I was sure he was crazy. Why was my

mother bringing me here?

     ‘Look at you,’ he said, examining my forearm. ‘You need


     He negotiated a price with my mother – she would bring

him a sack of peanuts. The smell of animals and smoke was

overpowering as we stepped into his dark house. Bright sunlight

filtered through cracks in the plank walls.

     ‘Tobacco?’ he demanded.

     My mother handed him the cigarettes and the bottle of cane


     ‘Stand,’ he said to me.

     He took a handful of fresh herbs and shook them around

my body while he mumbled supplications to God, or the

Devil, who knew? Then he rubbed the herbs on my arms and

face to release the oils, before scraping my skin with a thin

wooden spatula. When he had finished he showed me a pile of

granules that he said he’d scraped off my skin. They looked like

rotten millet. It was disgusting and I knew it was all a trick. He

gave me a strange look, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking.

     Then he took a swig of liquor and sprayed it out of his

mouth in a fine mist to coat my skin. He opened the newspaper,

took out a cigarette and examined the brand. He smiled.

My mother had brought the counterfeit Marlboros, which

were more expensive than the Sudanese brands. He lit the cigarette

and blew short puffs of smoke in my face, making me

cough. Then he inhaled a huge lungful of smoke, burning at

least a quarter of the cigarette. He let the smoke out in a cloud

and wafted his hands so it coated my body. ‘Done,’ he said.

     ‘Wait outside.’

     I stood in the yard, itching my skin like crazy, until my

mother came out with a bag of herbs. All the way home I

forced myself not to scratch because I didn’t want my mother

to think she’d wasted her time and money on this witch

doctor. But I knew she had.

     At home my mother steeped the herbs until they made a

thick, bitter drink that made me gag. For two weeks I dreaded

my morning dose of this concoction. Of course, it didn’t help

at all. My skin still bled and oozed and itched. She took me to

several other healers, each of them weird and a bit scary, but

none of them helped. I could see sadness and a sense of hopelessness

on my mother’s face.

     Finally she decided I should go to Khartoum. My father was

there getting treatment for a broken hip. He’d accidentally

ridden his bicycle into a deep pothole one dark night on a

road not far from our house. The doctors in Khartoum

inserted steel pins into the bone to hold it together. My father

was staying with my uncle, who was a doctor, and my brother

Athian while he recuperated. My mother thought that if

anyone could help me my uncle could. She also thought it

would be good for me to visit my father. So, one morning she

packed me a little bag with a change of clothes and we walked

several miles out of town to the airport. There, she asked the

flight attendants to look after me and I walked out onto the

tarmac and climbed the stairs to the plane. The propellers

looked massive; I had no doubt that they would be able to

carry us aloft over the desert.

     Inside, I sat in the most comfortable seat I’d ever known. I

could see the pilot in the cockpit with all the complicated dials

and buttons. It was exciting, but it was also hard to leave my

mother. Looking out of the little window I saw her at the edge

of the runway. I waved and waved but she never waved back.

I guess she couldn’t see me. We took off and flew high above

the vast plains to the city. Athian met me at the airport and I

stayed in Khartoum for months, visiting doctors who all said

my psoriasis was incurable. Finally my mother sent word that

I should return home and go to school. Back in Wau my skin

got even worse. We saw more witch doctors. Nothing helped.

     When I was seven my mother somehow got me into a

German missionary hospital over an hour’s walk outside of

town, near the Jur River. The Germans were known for being

good with skin conditions so we thought they would be able

to find a cure. I remember that on one of my first days there a

German doctor took one look at me, said, ‘Oh my God,’ and

left the room. It was that bad.

     I stayed in that hospital for a month. They rubbed creams

on my body and wrapped my legs and hands in bandages. It

drove me mad not to be able to scratch but that helped me

heal a little. The food was good and I rested in the sun. But I

was so lonely by myself. My parents came to visit as often as

they could, but it was too far for them to come every day. I

missed my mother so much. Sometimes she would stay at the

hospital for a few days, but not often as she had to look after

my brothers and sisters at home.

     The hospital was like a maze, with rooms off of a veranda

and a hidden courtyard filled with flowers. It was really clean

and pleasant. Eventually my skin healed and they said I could

go home. I felt great. But as soon as I stopped the treatments

the psoriasis came back and I started scratching myself until I

bled. It was agony. I couldn’t squeeze a lemon without my

hands burning as the juice got into the cracks. The other children

would sometimes make fun of me. I hated it. I didn’t feel


     I think that the years I spent suffering from psoriasis taught

me not to take beauty too seriously. Just looking at someone

and passing judgment like that isn’t really so meaningful –

saying someone is ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a much deeper

issue. I know, because I was ugly for much of my childhood,

and then my skin cleared up and people thought just the

opposite but I remained the same person, with an ugly side

and a beautiful side like everyone else. There was nothing substantially

different about me; my skin was just better.

     Despite my psoriasis, I had a pretty good childhood. Often in

the mornings, if I wasn’t at school, I’d go to the market with

my mother to get vegetables and meat from the women who

brought their supplies in from the countryside on donkeys.

The meat could be really nasty, because they just cut it up and

laid it out on tables in the open air, with flies buzzing on it.

You had to cook it thoroughly to kill any parasites. There

wasn’t any choice, so we didn’t really think about it very much.

You could find anything at the market, even fat roasted

termites that people would crunch between their teeth like

potato crisps.

     One of my favorite foods was a flatbread called kissra. To

prepare it you make a batter from corn or other grains, pour it

out onto a griddle and then spread the batter out with a palm

leaf. When it’s done you lift it off the griddle and stack it on

top of the others you’ve cooked, like American pancakes. The

bread is dipped into stews.

     There was a stew called Ni’aimiya, made of onions, spices,

peanuts and okra or meat, sometimes with yogurt or milk

mixed in. There were other stews that I liked even more, called

waika, bussaara and sabaroag, which were made from dried okra

powder and sometimes had potatoes, aubergines and spices in

them. Our main, day-to-day food was a wheat or corn porridge

called asseeda. Sometimes my mother would serve the

porridge with a dried fish dish called kajaik.

     For a special feast, we might also have elmaraara or umfitit,

which are made from sheep offal, onions, peanut butter and

salt and eaten raw. I loved the rare occasions when we had

soups such as kawar’i, made of cattle hoofs and vegetables, and

elmussalammiya, which is made from liver, flour, dates and

spices. We mostly drank tea or water, and possibly milk. Every

once in a while we’d have fruit drinks, which were made by

blending orange and lemon pulp with water.

     My mother tells me that I had my own special diet when I

was a young girl: I liked to eat sand.

     ‘I’d find you licking it off the walls,’ she said. ‘I’d always be

catching you putting sand in your mouth.’

     She thought the sand had caused my psoriasis, but I doubt

it. I don’t know why I ate sand. I know that some people eat

dirt and scientists say it’s a way for them to get the minerals

they need. I can’t really imagine it, but perhaps I was missing

something in my diet. Who knows? I felt it was a completely

normal childhood. Until the tanks came. When I was nine,

great rumbling convoys of army trucks draped with soldiers

entered Wau. Everything changed.