(Photo: Courtesy of Groundwood Books)
While much has been written about the so-called "lost boys" of Sudan -- the young males orphaned during the Sudanese civil war -- very little has been documented about the girls. In 1999, the U.S. State Department allowed 4,000 young male refugees into the country, and just 89 young females. The book “Lost Girl Found” explains why. Denver’s Leah Bassoff is one of the co-authors of the book. She spoke with CPR’s Lesley McClurg.

 

 

Read an excerpt: Chapter One

That one there? We call her Nadai. Nadai’s voice is as pure as a batis bird’s when she sings. Though she is three years older than me, she lets me climb up with her in the mango tree.

“Nadai,” I cry. “Let down your very long arms and pull me up.” And she does have the longest arms — thin but strong as rope.

“See how I can make the mango tree laugh,” Nadai says, and she shakes the branches, which makes several mangoes fall to the ground.

We eat the mangoes then — juice dripping down our chins — juice that Nadai wipes off with the inside of her wrist rather than her fingers. Nadai’s tongue is long, just like her arms. It makes me laugh.

It is Nadai who tells me things, Nadai who first shows me where the mouth of the mango is. Some mangoes have skin that grows yellow or pink on the outside, but here in Chukudum we grow Indian mangoes. Their skin remains green even when ripe. It is only by prying open the mouth of the mango that you can see inside.

“Poni, you are a hungry, hungry girl,” Nadai teases.

It is true. I can eat mangoes down to their last meaty string.

“Did you eat breakfast, Zenitra Lujana Paul Poni?”

Nadai’s legs dangle from the tree branch. She flaps her arms up and down as though she is a heron preparing to take flight.

“Mama fried a goat liver for me, and I ate it right up then ran all the way to school.”

“You run everywhere.”

This is the joke, my running. The women in my village entertain themselves by constantly sending me on errands. “Run and fetch some water,” they tell me, and then they laugh to see me sprint off like my heels are on fire.

“Why walk when you can run?” I say.

We stay up in the tree for hours. Below us, we hear the clackity-clack of children dropping round stones into holes in rows as they play mancala.

Another group of boys play football using a dried lemon for a ball. If they are lucky, one of the women will needlepoint a ball out of an old sock, since the lemons often split apart. When the boys score a goal, we throw the dark leaves of the mango tree up in the air to celebrate.

I like watching these boys. In particular, I like the way the goalkeeper stands, swaying back and forth, his eyes watchful.

So that you should know the truth about me, I am not only known as a runner but also as a troublemaker. Perhaps this is why I like Nadai. Like me, she is always eager to go to the forbidden river. “Kinyeti River, Kinyeti River.” We say it only in whispers.

Kinyeti River is where everything happens — where the women go to bathe, wash clothes, scrub dishes and share news. Yet this river is greedy. It eats large numbers of children every year when its waters are high from the rainy season. Some adults call these children sacrifices.

And do not forget the crocodiles. These beasts mainly keep to themselves, but every once in a while, one will draw its wrinkly body out of the water — its eyes as still as stones — and, with a snap of its jaw, carry someone off.

Mama calls the river Disease Soup, since it is filled with nasty illnesses. My father has told us we may not go to Kinyeti, not ever.

Yet how can we stay away from a river that is so much fun?

Once there, my brothers, Iko and Lotiki, coax me knee-deep into the water.

“It’s not so deep,” they say. Then they push me in all the way.

I hear a swooshing noise as the water yanks me under. My ears pound, and my throat burns. I kick and thrash at the water, which is like a python squeezing the air out of me.

Finally, I fight my way out, coming to the water’s surface with a pop. I continue to paddle my feet and arms crazily as my brothers cheer.

“Now you’re swimming,” they yell. It is as simple as that.

Later, they say they wouldn’t have let me drown for too long, would have waded in and pulled me out eventually, but this is how children are taught to swim.

I hate the river yet want more of her.

I sneak away to the river whenever I can and, when I do, I decide that I want to be like those boys and girls who can swim with a mat made of reeds held high above their heads. If the mat hits the water, it falls apart, letting the others know you weren’t strong enough to make it across. I try a few times, but every time I can make it only part way to the bank before my mat floats away in soggy pieces.

Nadai finds another way to prove her bravery, jumping into the water from the bridge that sits so high above it. For a brief moment she is dancing through the air, her body that of a dark fish that has been thrust out of the water. She screams as she makes a loud slap that cracks open the surface of the water and sends her plunging down.

We play, all of us, for hours, but because I have swallowed so much river water, when it is time to go home my brothers beat me around the stomach until I vomit. They do not want my father learning about Kinyeti.

My father is a clever man, though, a highly respected chief and pharmacist. When we get home, he takes one look at our red eyes and the white mucus that is gathering in their corners.

“Did you go into Kinyeti?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. But then, as I am talking, I can’t help myself. I give a shivery sigh. It creeps up inside of me — the result of all the cold water I gulped and vomited.

This one teensy little sigh is enough to tip my father off.

“You went in,” he says, and this time it is no longer a question. Secretly, I am impressed with the way he is able to read me, the way he stares me down.

That night he canes me using a thick branch that he has carved smooth. Whack, whack. My whole body aches from the beating. It is awful, and it is worth it. I know that I will return to Kinyeti.

We children are constantly on the move, roaming among the tukuls, our round huts with cone-shaped roofs. Most of our free time we spend outside, climbing trees and exploring. It is not that there are no chores. All of my mothers have me wash the dishes so that I can practice bending my back. They have me carry small loads of twigs on my head so that my neck will grow strong, strong enough for the day when I will carry an entire jerry can of water on my head, or a full load of firewood.

When Lodai Giovanni arrives one dry afternoon, all of the women start dancing and jumping. He has come to claim another wife. Because he is wealthy, it is assumed that no one will reject his offer of cattle, goats and blankets.

When he announces that he has chosen Nadai’s family, her many sisters start gossiping. They wonder which one of them will be married off. At this time, Nakidiche, Nadai’s mother, is far away, gathering firewood. It is no matter, since marriage negotiations are done through the father and uncles. In fact, Nakidiche will not learn of her daughter’s marriage until the arrangements have already been made.

I see Lodai Giovanni walking towards Nadai’s hut. Giovanni is an Italian name, a gift from the Catholic missionaries, added to his Didinga one. Despite the lovely name, he is not pleasing to the eye, with a big bald spot and his hair parted on either side as though the Israelites have passed right through it. He is highly respected in the village, but he is also a man in his forties, married with many children.

This excerpt is taken from Lost Girl Found, copyright © 2014 Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books, Toronto.