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Patricia Schonstein

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Last Train Across Ariat Bridge

Once, when attending the Zimbabwe Book Fair, I listened to a talk by a South Sudanese woman, Teresa Samuel Ibrahim, who was living in a refugee camp in Khartoum.
Afterwards, I mentioned to her that she should consider capturing into poetry some of the deeply moving imagery and emotions she’d expressed in her speech. In response to her lack of confidence as a writer, I pointed out that her presentation had achieved, certainly to my hearing, all that was imperative within poetry – she had moved my heart.
I offered to help ‘render’ the core of her speech into poetic form and we went up to my hotel room where she sat in an armchair. I asked her simply to close her eyes and recount the manner in which she and her children had fled South Sudan. As she spoke, I wrote down her words, using her breath and pauses as punctuation and line-changes. This ‘telling’ became her poem, THE LAST TRAIN ACROSS ARIAT BRIDGE.
And then, I asked what she longed for, what it was that she missed of her former life – a life she would probably never be able to return to. Again, she closed her eyes and I took down her words to capture her poem, LONGING.
Yesterday, I read these two poems to the Cape Jewish Seniors in Milnerton, while sharing with them how I collect poems for inclusion in the Africa! Anthologies that I curate.
We found parallels in much of the holocaust narrative and that of present-day refugees. Common to all, seems to be the train (or the unseaworthy boat; or the overland truck) crowded with distressed people. Second is the suitcase or the blanket-bundle – the paucity of belongings, grabbed in a hurry, while fleeing or being shipped out. Common too, are the archetypes of the child and soldier; and separation from family members. Running through all, is the undercurrent of fear, and the realisation that death, by any manner of foul means, is the pursuant dynamic.
What is it that one takes when one is brutally dispossesed or driven away? Yes, the few belongings. Yes, whatever food can be stuffed into bags. Yes, water. Yes, money or small things of value. But we know – we who look back on our own histories; or in front of us at the present crises faced by refugees – that those displaced people on trains and boats often have only the clothes on their back.
Yet, what is within? What is carried within? Certainly hope – or they would just lie down and die. Certainly a sense that someone, somewhere, will reach out and help them – or they would not go forth except by force. And, certainly ‘The Poem’, the inner narrative of human fortitude and resilience; the inner light which shines through the darkness of brute behaviour and towards life.
Displaced Persons’ Camp, Northern Sudan 1998
Teresa Samuel Ibrahim
As told to Patricia Schonstein
I long for the weather.
Here we live in the desert.
At home we have rain and green forests
And I feel very comfortable there.
Always I am thinking about my home.
Here we sleep on sand.
The sand is full of snakes and scorpions.
The children shout in the night.
They think the soldiers are coming at any moment.
My longing is to be back in my own home
Where I don’t beg
And because the weather there is fine.
I am used to it from childhood.
And the water at home is not salty.
Displaced Persons’ Camp, Northern Sudan 1998
Teresa Samuel Ibrahim
As told to Patricia Schonstein
Because there was an ambush in my village
and my husband was detained
I decided to flee with the children to the north.
We waited for the train, we slept on the ground.
We had no good bedding or coverings.
Rain started. I started crying
because of the small children crying of rain and hunger.
I took the last train across Ariat with my children and some belongings.
The whistle of the train blew and we had some difficulties.
Everyone was pushing especially the soldiers.
The children were crying from being crushed.
I was crying and arguing with those who were overcrowding.
But they were also helpless.
I remained with my children: Dirty. Weak. Hungry.
We had only groundnuts to eat
and as we passed over Ariat Bridge
it was broken behind us by the rebels.
That was the last train to leave southern Sudan.
It took four days on the way between Ariat and Kosti.
Two nights later we arrived in Khartoum.
There was no place for us. No one was willing to take us
because they also have their problems.
We settled with others in the desert outside Khartoum.
There was no shelter there, only some thorn trees.
The ones who could not take the train
arrived after walking two months.
Some died walking. Some drowned in the flood.
Some reached Khartoum thin with swollen legs
with rashes and cracks.
We ourselves had some blankets and very little money.
Wood was difficult to get.
The only food was okra, some salt, water
and wheat flour given to us by the Catholic Church.
We started cutting dry thorn trees to make rakuba.
This is the quickest way to make a shelter
because if you are moving
you can take it and erect it in the next place.
You cannot say if you will be forced to move again.
Africa! My Africa!
An anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein
African Sun Press
ISBN 978-1-874915-20-1

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