In I Am My Mother’s Wildest Dream, Nyajuok Tongyik moves the reader through a simplified version of a longstanding Nuer tradition – the kind that looks down upon the female gender. Her writing style is simple yet declarative, emotive but controlled, and humorous in some ways. The book, published on May 1 this year is a gripping story of a dignified struggle, resilience, hope, betrayal and extraordinary success of a woman. Nyajuok mirrors the true embodiment of the American Dream as the subtitle of her book rightly narrates. In the preface, she welcomes the reader with a flair introducing the subject matter of the book: love. She writes:
“ when we moved to the United States, I was exposed to a different way of life and love took on a new meaning for me. Love was no longer just about having a roof over my head, clothes on my body, or shoes on my feet. My understanding of love grew deeper; it was about respect and I felt disrespected.”
Nyajuok’s story is compelling for two reasons: first, she was arranged and forced to marry at 14 and secondly, that happened in the United States of America – the land of freedom. A keen reader will be able to appreciate the long arms of Nuer’s repressive socio-cultural norm which violates international boundaries. The book written in the first person pronoun is easy to read. It is simple in tone and keeps the reader hostage to the pages.
The book details the role of a typical Nuer girl/woman and by extension, the South Sudanese African woman – from cooking to wood collection, to building to childcare; stuffs that the Nuer tradition take as given yet they place a heavy burden on women and girls in the society, limiting their full potential to play. As a native myself, I would say Nyajuok’s understanding of the issues at hand are impressive and deeply reflect the voice of a strong woman who refuses to obey outdated norms, beliefs and practices. The extraordinary effort of the Nuer woman comes natural; Nyajuok speaks fondly of her mum’s hard work back in the Dimma where they survived on the UNHCR’s food bailouts. Her mum, the book details, would take over the family breadwinning (including building a house) as dad turned to alcohol. This cannot be more telling as women in South Sudan always step up when a man reneges on their roles.
While in the US, Nyajuok would encounter abuses in the hands of her dad; a typical Nuer man who chose culture and traditions over his sweet daughter, forcing her to marry a man almost twice her age at a school-going age of 14. Raan Chierang, the husband-to-be would pay $8,000 to Nyajuok’s family – child marriage was about to happen in America. Nyajuok’s disagreement was futile as her dad took to Africa, married another wife using Chierang’s child bridge so Nyajuok would remain a captive of tradition.
In the nick of time, Nyajuok protested with the wisdom of her aunt, Nyalang, a culturally more placed woman than herself who advised that the only way out was to name another man. That exit strategy worked and Gatwech Tut, Nyajuok’s schoolmate joined the drama. The transition was not smooth from the beginning as Nyajuok’s family constantly fought Gatwech, worked somewhat in the middle and then slipped off towards the end. Gatwech would have Nyajuok arrested at 19 in a dramatic scene where he assaulted his wife then played victim by calling 9.1.1 accusing Nyajuok of attempted manslaughter.
Before she knew it, Nyajuok divorced twice while in college. The realities of being born a girl in socio-culturally correct society sat on her like a rainbow. She later remarried Duol Ruei, a man with whom she had felt a true love but tradition intervened and they divorced. Again she met Dhol Chai and stayed a while before Nyajuok ended the relationship after feeling so insecure about the whole situation.
Finally Nyajuok met a Kenyan man, Mikuro, the only character I failed to understand in the book. They met in the Army. Nyajuok joined the army following her brother, Kueth’s return from Iraq – physically and mentally strained from years of wars. She did that out of honor for her brother as she writes:
“the primary reason I considered joining the Army was to honor my brother’s service and potentially save someone else’s sons and brothers..”
Mikuro failed Nyajuok once more, betraying his own assessment of true love. Nyajuok writes passionately about Mikuro’s love statement quoting him: “Love is a decision, and I’ve already decided that I want you.” That statement clicked with Nyajuok, a woman who had seen it all, the world of men in love. But the Kenyan didn’t keep up and the marriage again ended as he chose to ignore Nyajuok’s most crucial want; her love tank.
This book should be on every man and woman’s shelf. It is a story of hope in despair, a story of resilience and of courage amidst adversity. Young people of both genders will particularly like this short book because it provides lessons that are rare in today’s gendered conversation. Nyajuok’s courage to write this book is immense; it is a sign of a changing social narrative that destroys our world’s most important assets, the women. There are millions of Nyajuok out there who chose silence over protest, fear over courage and cultural correctness over life as it should be. One way to save them is by reading this book so that we can engage in the social transformation that is ripe as Nyajuok rightly presents in this soul-searching text. I hope you can join me and others in this enriching journey.