the healing muse

Volume 10, 2010

Why I Am Skinny

Elijah Dut

            “What do I go for: a loaf of bread or a pair of jeans?” Just after the outbreak of war in Sudan in 1987, I fled with my grandmother to Uganda for safety and survival. In Uganda, life was a daily struggle; we faced severe hunger and death threats from radicals in our host community who mistakenly thought refugees were invading their land. While in Uganda, my grandmother did our shopping.
            Two years later, my grandmother died. I was only seven years old. This was the turning point in my life; I had to live my own life with inexperienced hands and the brain of a little boy.
            My neighbors checked on me each morning to see if I was still alive. Glory to the Lord, at least someone was checking on me. Everybody thought I was going to starve to death; they just did not know when. One evening as I stood watching the sunset, I remembered my grandmother’s warning: “Don’t throw food away, for a hunger might come someday and you will starve to death.” I felt heavy with guilt; the war that had sent us to this wilderness and the flood that overflowed our land existed because I did not save food.
            I remember asking my grandmother before the war came, “What kind of animal is hunger? What does it look like?”
            She said, “It is an animal that is as big as an elephant and as gloomy-looking as Juma, the dog.” I used to be afraid of  Juma, and I knew that the elephant is the largest animal on the land. I had not seen one, but was scared and tried not to throw more food away. At that time, the hunger never came so I asked my grandmother again when it will come. “Any day, someday, any time,” she said.
            I finally said to her, “I am ready for whenever that is, Grandma.” Now remembering that conversation, I fell to my knees, and I cried heavily as if I was in a crying contest. I asked myself, “Is life long enough that my stomach will ever be full again?” I went back into our thatched hut knowing that her revelation had come true. The hut felt unusually cold. At sleeping time, my grandmother used to burn logs of wood all night to keep our hut warm and to keep the mosquitoes away. As I lay down, I heard mosquitoes ululating, chanting their lucky song, and ready to suck blood out of my veins. They attacked quickly. I started punching and slapping myself. Today I can tell you, given a choice between a mosquito bite and intramuscular injection, I would take the daily intramuscular shot. I cried and cried. Between my hunger and the mosquitoes, I wondered which one would take my last breath.
            The night dragged. In the morning, I imagined the mosquitoes saying to me, “See you tonight.” I vowed, “No!” I saw some mosquitoes around the roof of the hut, others on the wall filled with my blood, and others on the floor, their bodies too heavy for their wings to lift. From that day, I began to sleep during the day, gather firewood at night, and burn it every night to chase mosquitoes away.
            Three days later, my Aunt sent me six Ugandan shillings. Six shillings in those days was like getting a thousand dollars. I was happy, playful as a calf, and couldn’t wait for the marketing day. I decided to go shopping for some food and with the remaining money to buy some casual clothes so I could go to church with other children. I arrived at the store and right in front of me was a pair of dark blue jeans. The price was six shillings. Too much! I asked the shopkeeper how much for the jeans, and he said six shillings. I tried to bargain, but it was like milking a bull. The shopkeeper seemed to know what was in my pocket.
            I walked back to the food aisle, my eyes glued to the jeans. “How much for a loaf of bread?” I asked a saleswoman.
            “One shilling and 50 cents.” The breads were shining as if polished with brown kiwi cream. I was salivating, but I walked back to check the jeans. Back and forth I paced, so confused about what to choose.
            Now, I was not only hungry, but also exhausted. My mouth was so dry that I was spitting cotton. “Should I buy a loaf of bread or a pair of jeans?” I looked up into the sky, hoping to find the answer. With no strength, I stood, took a deep breath, and gave my money to the shopkeeper for the jeans. My stomach seemed suddenly numb. Since that time, my stomach has never again protruded or swelled.
            I ran home to put the jeans on and show them off to friends. I also informed my friends that they could not leave me behind for church services anymore simply because I did not have “cool” clothes. I ran around telling every child in my neighborhood about my new jeans. The joy of my new jeans was great, but the cramping teeth of hunger were still stronger. My choice of jeans over bread put me more into the lineage of mosquitoes with skinny legs; I became their little cousin. I regretted my decision the minute the sun went down, but it was the best decision I could make at that moment. I needed to fit among my peers. Since that day, I have never gained weight. We become who we are because of the choices we make.


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