"There's a full moon tonight," Naomi Majok said to her younger brother, Stephen. "And that means a dance!" She pulled him to his feet, dreamily closing her eyes and swaying.
Naomi and Stephen lived with their mother in the Bahr el Ghazal region of southern Sudan, in a small, out-of-the-way village, surrounded by mile upon mile of vast grasslands.
"Uh-oh, Naomi! You're in love!" crowed Stephen. "Who is it? Old Peter Garang? I know--you want his cows. He offered us five for your bride price. We'd be practically rich!"
"Stephen! Of course it's not Peter Garang. He has only three teeth! Anyway," she said, "Wol's mother has ten cows. I know she could match Peter's offer."
"Wait a minute! What are you saying? Wol's interestedin offering us a bride price for you? He's just a boy! He's fourteen! Only three years older than I am!"
"Don't tease. I know he's young, but imagine me as Peter's third wife."
"Yes, but he belongs to the most influential family in the village. They have twenty cows!" Stephen said. "Naomi, be serious. Did Wol really make Mama an offer for you?"
"Not yet. But he's going to. At least, I think he will. What do you think? Would he be a good husband for me?" Naomi asked.
Stephen burst out laughing. He couldn't imagine it. He and Wol and Deng, who was thirteen, worked and played together all the time. He couldn't picture Wol and sixteen-year-old Naomi married.
"Stop laughing!" Naomi cried.
"Okay, okay." Stephen cleared his throat and tried to settle down. "Being married to Garang would be awful. And since both families could offer us a price of five cows, the offers are equal. So that means it will be up to Mama to decide."
"Oh, don't say that," Naomi moaned. "That's just the problem. She's sure to choose Garang because of his position in the tribe. And listen, I don't want you to say anything about this to Wol today. Promise?"
"Calm down, Naomi."
"You think this is easy? In three or four years, you may be in the same position."
"Me?" Stephen looked at his sister, surprised. He would never be married. He would study in Egypt or Kenya or who knew where and become a teacher.
At that moment, their mother entered their tukel, a round hut made of mud and grass, with a cone-shaped roof. She was carrying two calabash gourds filled with water from the well. She set them on the dirt floor and rubbed the small of her back.
"There's going to be a dance tonight, Mama," Naomi said.
"Is that so?" her mother said.
She glanced at the mattock leaning against the wall by the entrance. The tool was for digging, for chopping at the dry ground and loosening it. The tarnished blade was bound to the wooden handle with a long cord.
"Naomi," she said sharply, "never mind tonight. What about the crops? Do you expect us to eat weeds? And, Stephen, you boys didn't fix the thorn hedge around the cattle pen yesterday. Three cows disappeared last night. Now you'll have to go looking for them."
Stephen made a face. He, Wol, and their friend Deng had all made new spears yesterday, while watchingthe cattle. Late in the afternoon, when the heat eased a little, they had thrown their spears at the round gourd they used as a ball until their shoulders ached. So when they brought the cattle back to the village, none of the boys had wanted to repair the thorny branch fence that kept the cows safe overnight.
Acacia thorns were long and sharp and left deep, bloody scratches on the boys' hands and arms. The branches were the cows' only protection against predators. There was always the danger of attack by wild animals, maybe lions, hyenas, or leopards. And the villagers depended on their cows for everything--they drank the milk and blood and burned the dried dung when no firewood could be found.
Stephen thought about the difficulties of dragging more branches to the fence. Still, when their mother ordered them to work, they obeyed. The children quickly hurried out of the tukel.
Sudanese children learned early to work hard for their families. Girls always worked in the home and the fields, struggling to keep the sorghum and maize alive and growing through the terrible heat and what now seemed to be their third year of drought in a row. Boys herded the cattle, which were the pride of all Dinka tribes in the region of Bahr el Ghazal, the River of Gazelles.
It was Stephen's job to take their two cows, a rangywhite one with long curved horns and his favorite, their old yellow cow, from the large pen and out to pasture with the rest of the village cattle. Wol and Deng, the only other older boys in the village, went with him.
Stephen walked across the circle of cone-shaped huts, past the village well, to the cow pen. He saw the tips of the cattle's wide-spaced horns, visible above the thorny branches. One of the old men, dressed in a cloth fastened at the shoulder, was using a long stick to refashion the branches so they would block the hole where the cows had escaped during the night.
Peter Garang watched. He had twenty cows, more than anyone in the village, although once people had had many more. He shouted to Stephen, "Look at this hole! This fence is no good. If you boys did your work properly, my cows would never have gotten loose."
Oh no, Stephen thought. Why couldn't the missing cows belong to someone else?
"Maybe your cows couldn't sleep well last night. The cows want to stay awake when there's a full moon, just like the rest of us, uncle," Stephen said, trying to pacify the old man. "Don't worry. We'll find them."
"Huh. I doubt that," Peter said in disgust, spitting a stream of tobacco juice in the dirt.
Making sure that the children did their work andminded their elders was the job of all the adults in the village, not just the parents. Peter had a right to criticize the boys. Stephen didn't want Peter to beat him with his stick, so he tried again to change the subject. "There's going to be a dance tonight."
"And your sister needs a wealthy husband," old man Garang said. "She's always singing love songs out in the fields. I hear her. We all hear her. Maybe I'll marry her myself, eh? I've made my offer. When is your mother going to make her decision?"
"I don't know. Soon, I think."
"Your sister is a little too full of herself," Peter Garang said, his dignity somewhat injured.
Stephen stifled a laugh. Naomi was proud of her beauty. And he was sure that she would never marry a snoopy old man like Peter, no matter how many cows he had or what Mama said. Stephen carefully pulled open a place in the thorn fence that served as a crude gate. He used a long pole to pry apart the branches, avoiding the thorns.
As the cows ambled through the opening, Stephen quickly scanned the herd to see which three were missing. The other yellow cow. A white-and-tan one. And a white one with one short horn. It was true. All belonged to Peter Garang.
"See? What did I say? It's only my cows that aregone. That's no accident, I can tell you. I bet someone did this to me on purpose, thinking, Well, Garang is old, he won't miss them. Ha. If you boys don't find my cows immediately, you can all expect a lashing."
"Maybe the person who did this to me is the person who wants to offer a bride price for Naomi himself!" shouted Peter.
Stephen hurried the cows toward the grassy open field, where they would graze. He didn't want to be punished on the night of the dance. And it wasn't fair that he had to get the cows alone, that Deng and Wol were late. But maybe that would turn out well. They would owe him a favor in exchange for their lateness. He would send them to look for Peter's cows.
Then Stephen saw his friends, each dressed in a pair of worn shorts, fooling around near the open-sided hut where the village children had had school last year. The teacher had left when the northern soldiers moved into the region.
Deng and Wol were practicing hops and high leaps in the air, their legs tucked under them. They were getting ready for the dance.
"Hey! Never mind that," Stephen shouted. "Come on. You're late! Some cows escaped last night. Now you'll have to go find them!"
Already the herd of long-horned cattle was ambling toward the fields.
Stephen jogged after the herd. Wol and Deng, playfully laughing and shoving each other, trailed behind.