A Dinka Boyhood? (Mysterious Photographs)

I blew it this week. In writing this blog, I aspire to post something meaningful, well-crafted, and of great quality, preferably once per week. My inaugural post happened to enter the digital universe on a Monday, so Monday became the de facto “day I post new stuff.” This past week (and weekend) got away from me entirely. My post on an exceptionally interesting multicultural study of children got shuffled toward the back of the “to do” deck, and instead of rushing to put it up, I think I’ll wait and do it right and get it out next week. However, I didn’t feel right about not doing anything at all. I intend never to let this become a chore: if I can’t happily, willingly, excitedly come up with a new post each week, I’d rather opt for nothing at all than filler material. I thought I was entrenched firmly in the “oh shit I didn’t finish anything for this week and so I won’t post anything” camp. And then I remembered a set of photographs my wife shared with me a few days ago.

The following link will take you to the page she shared with me, where you will find large-format photos pegged one right after another for your viewing pleasure: Dinka

This link will take you to the photographers’ website, which is much more polished, but much less conducive to scrolling through these wonderful images in large-format, all in one page: Dinka – Photographer site

The photos revolve around the Dinka tribe from South Sudan. The movie God Grew Tired of Us and the book What is the What both deal with the “Lost Boys” of Sudan – many of whom were Dinka by tribe. If you’ve not experienced either of these, you should make it a point to do so soon.

It has been quite a while since I’ve thought much about the Dinka people. I have, over the years, had the opportunity to briefly chat to young people who identified themselves as Dinka; all of them I have met in Atlanta, living as refugees. For about a year, I found myself living a stone’s throw from the Sudanese (then, all of a sudden one morning, South* Sudanese) border, but I never found time nor legitimate reason to cross it. I don’t know a ton about the Dinka, but what I do know is fascinating: the kind of stuff that we in the (over)developed world can hardly wrap our minds around these days.

(*A new country had been born! A new president sworn in! The exhilarated, liberated masses were thronging in the newly minted capital city of Juba. And slowly, stealthily, Ugandan armored personnel carriers and even tanks rumbled leopard-like through slumbering villages and far-flung hamlets, lining their rigid steel spines along the border, readying their artillery: preparing for the worst. Weeks passed, months. Then, things began crumbling. Political killings and reprisals slipped into our Western news streams just as whole villages fled the muzzles of guns and the glint of swords. We focused intently on the action for a few days – perhaps a week, even – and grew tired of it, moved on, found some other more popular, fresher source of pain and moved our cameras away from South Sudan.)

I really have a lot to rant about when it comes to the news.

But I digress.

What I want to share with you is one photograph in particular from this small collection on the Dinka. Now, before you go scrolling down past it on to the rest of the text on this page, I want you to stop. That’s right, stop. Look at the photo. Really give it a good eyeballing. There’s no need to rush. You can spare 30 seconds. A minute even. Now, go ahead and look at it. A nice long look. When you’ve gotten a good look, you can move on to some questions I found myself asking. Maybe you’ll have similar questions. Maybe you can answer some of the mysteries I found myself viewing. Anyway, go ahead and look at the photo now.

Dinka boys on mound

What do you notice? What do you see?

What can you say about the boys’ faces? Are they happy? Sad? Indifferent? Bored? Invested in something going on in the mound?

Speaking of – what the hell is the mound? Is it a termite hill? A reptile’s nest? A temporary oven? A grave? A stump being removed? A fire just for fire’s sake? Something to keep everyone warm? To produce ash for use in some ritual?

What’s in the background? What is that sheep on the right in the foreground doing?

Where are the adults? Where are the other children?

Is this morning, or evening? Is there a bath in these boys’ immediate future? In their immediate past?

I can’t find a caption for this photograph, and so all of these questions are mysteries to me. I’m curious about what’s happening here. I’d love to hear your thoughts. It’s not important that I solve the mystery; no lives are hanging in the balance, after all. I’m just curious. And, pensive I suppose.

How old are these boys? 4? 5? 6? What will my son be doing when he is their age? He almost certainly won’t be doing what these boys are doing – whatever the hell that may be. But, will he be that naked, that free, that unfettered? Will I allow him to get that dirty, to play that close to smoldering mounds? Will I allow him to tramp the neighborhoods with other boys his age, and let them throw rocks and break bottles and get stung by bees? I don’t know. I like to think so, yes. But, I’ve already noticed how protective of him I am. I brought him into this world; by god I plan to keep him safe and sound as much as I can. That’s one of my main charges as his father. But isn’t it equally important to let him live? To let him explore, and make mistakes, and get cut squeezing under old rusty fences?

Throughout, I hope I can have the poise of the dog pictured on the left: dozing peacefully, yet still alert. Resting gently on his charge, but not overbearing. Enjoying the calm of the moment, yet ready to fight to the death to protect if need be.


3 thoughts on “A Dinka Boyhood? (Mysterious Photographs)

  1. Your blog intrigued me so I read a little on the Dinka and this is what I found. First, Dinka men and boys do not cook so that can probably be ruled out. Second, the Dinka wear dung ash to repel mosquitoes. From this, I believe these boys are either tending a dung fire for this purpose or they are near the fire to avoid the mosquitoes.


    1. Thanks, Lyle. Your findings about the mosquito-repelling dung ash seem quite likely for our mystery scene here. I wonder if tending these mounds is simply part of a young boy’s daily chore list? Also, I assume they burn dung simply because it is so ubiquitous. Or perhaps it truly does have some special mosquito-proofing powers. Either way, it makes me appreciate my own childhood chores like washing dishes a whole lot more.


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