Remembering Sebit William Garang
by Atem Yaak Atem
Sebit William who has died in Juba was a man of the people. A career teacher, late Sebit taught for a number of years in Bor town, the capital of the former Jonglei province. At the outbreak of Sudan’s second civil war in 1983, he joined the new insurgency, trained and fought as an officer. In1990s Sebit William was deployed as teacher and carer of what foreign news media and critics of the SPLM/A interchangeably called unaccompanied minors and lost boys.
In the shadow of a pioneering father
The man who became known as Sebit throughout his life, was at birth named Chol1, alternatively referred to as Chute (Cuutë). Son of late William Garang Dut Goch, Sebit was born in Bor town where he grew up, received his primary education and in later years became a primary school teacher. He came from a huge family; his mother was Garang’s first wife among several of them. Sebit had many siblings.
William Garang Dut was one of the first boys from the former Bor district to go to school and acquire an education that was high by the standards of the day. After successfully completing Nugent School Loka in Equatoria province, William Garang became one of the few much-sought after Southern Sudanese. His peers hailing from Bor district included Manasseh Pach, Rekeboam Akech Kuai, Jeroboam Machuor Kulang, Mark Moses Akol, Gabriel Aluong Kang Makuei. Manoah Majok Deng, a future career administrator, was Garang’s cousin on his mother’s side was a member of younger generation to follow in their footsteps. It was Majok’s uncle, Chief Deng Yong Jurkuch who took young Garang to school. Most of those educated young men were taken by health, public administration or education services. The colonial department of agriculture and forestry employed and posted William Garang to Kegulu, also in Equatoria. The place was and continues to be famous for its abundant teak and other forestry products.
According to Garang’s daughter, Rachel Ayen and Sebit’s half-sister, her father introduced into his district plants and tree species among them mango, lemon, guava and most of the trees that today line the streets of Bor town. It is widely known in his native area that it was William Garang who introduced lemon, mango, neem, mahogany among other trees, to Pawel, the local name of the administrative centre of the former Kongor Court Centre (renamed Kongor People’s Rural Council during the Regional Self-rule- 1972-1983).
William Garang Dut was a soft-spoken, affable, plumb, man with a babyish face even in old age. After years as a civil servant, Wilyom (with a stress on the second syllable) as rural Dinka people called him, joined politics in the 1950s. He contested a seat in one of the two constituencies allotted to the district. He lost. From that time, he began his gradual withdrawal from public view. Petty business was Garang’s fall back when he became the third “indigene” to own a shop in Kongor. As a non-resident businessman, the shop was run by his relatives. It is not clear why William Garang abandoned politics for good. But it would not be far off the mark to guess he might have abandoned politics because of the widely held perception by ordinary South Sudanese that most politicians lie most of the time. During Garang’s days, “thietha”, Dinka word for politics, was synonymous with deception. Being reputed for fair play, truthfulness and compassion, William Garang might have found politics an unsuitable vocation for him. He instead chose rearing livestock in addition to petty trade while he spent much of his time in Bor town with his wives. Sebit’s mother was Garang’s first wife. One of Garang’s elder daughters was to make history. Rachel Ayen, an elder daughter from the second wife, was among the first five girls- her own sister among them- from the district to go to school at the time when girl child education was almost a taboo among the cattle owning Dinka. Ayen was a contemporary of late Victoria Yaar Arol, first at Rumbek Central School (primary) and later at Maridi Intermediate School for girls. (Victoria Yaar was later to make history as the first female student ever to enter university and Southern Sudanese celebrated her entry into the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, University of Khartoum in 1968. Victoria Yaar Arol, Mary Nura Bassiouni and Ayen William Garang Dut scored another laurel when in 1974 they became the first women members in the first legislature- the People’s Regional Assembly- of the autonomous Southern Region.
Sebit had to create his own identity
Progenies from famous families, particularly those whose parents were well known achievers, often face a problem them: public expecting them to succeed like their distinguished parents or siblings. In real life, however, talent, success or fame, is rarely passed to offspring or inherited. In that case, such family members have to fashion for themselves- if they are aware of their peculiar situations- their own independent identities, personae and even public perception of who they are. That seems to have been the path Sebit William Garang had chosen. That awareness made him work harder and resulted in his emergence as someone who stood up to be counted in his own right.
Sebit William and I had known one another at some distance during our boyhood. But there was virtually no personal contact between us until the second half of 1970s. That was not surprising; we each belonged to two different sets of educational system operating then. Despite the fact that his father was a product of Christian missionary education, William Garang Dut sent most of children to what was known as “National Pattern”. In the schools affiliated to that system, Arabic was the medium of instruction. I, on the other hand, attended mission-based schools (Kongor Bush School, Malek Elementary School and Atar Intermediate) while Sebit had his education in Arabic, beginning in an elementary school in his Bor hometown. Students and graduates from those school schools were culturally apart, with little in common to bring them together although it would be unfair to describe the relationship as mutually hostile: indifference would come nearer to summing up the prevailing attitude of the day.
An amiable and humourous person
Sebit William, known to his friends as Abu Subut, was a pleasant person whose company drew a lot of people to him. It was in 1976 when he and I came to know each other more closely and better. During that year I was studying journalism at the Khartoum Institute of Mass Communications. He had just returned from Egypt where he and a number of teachers from Southern Sudan had gone for training. He was in the company of Mayom Deng Atem- later to become speaker of Upper Nile Region’s legislature from 1983- a relative of mine with whom I used to spend my school holidays in his home. Sebit and Mayom were friends and later developed another bond that the Nuer and Dinka call wët röm baai- literally men converging on a homestead- by which is meant two men who are married to women who are sisters or cousins. Mayom and Sebit’s widows- Adut Ajak Yol and Kuir Ajak Biar- are distant relatives. But I think it was more than this strand of relationship that was the only tie between the two men. Mayom, a man who fitted the description of gentleman, was fond of the company of people he judged as agreeable and imbued with humour.
Mayom and Sebit were bringing to me gifts they had bought from the Egyptian seaport of Alexandria’s duty free shops. These were a stylish watch and a pair of high heel shoes. These were some the items in vogue at the time. During the short time we spent together that evening in Omdurman, I found Sebit a gregarious man he always was. An accomplished story teller, Sebit would spice a mundane chat with jokes that kept participants thrilled and spellbound. Despite that, he could also be thoughtful when a situation demanded that.
Later back in Southern Sudan, each time I visited Bor where Sebit and Mayom were teaching, I rarely missed Sebit’s company during those few evenings in town, most of the time in Mayom’s home. Of course on such occasions we sometimes agonised over weightier matters, for example, rampant indiscipline and students fights in the schools all over the region; the woeful state of public transport system by river and roads that became impassable during rainy seasons; the plots the Northern opposition were hatching almost daily to undermine and eventually destroy the self-rule agreement.
Boosters of army morale
When Sudan’s second civil war broke out in 1983, the civilians who flocked to the new insurgency’s training centres were mostly students, teachers and peasants. Late Sebit William trained with the Koryom division and was commissioned an officer. He along with his comrades, was deployed to the theatre of fighting soon after.
That war is an unpleasant state of affairs is an indisputable fact. This is so with an army of volunteers such as the SPLA whose fighters did not have pay and whose basic provisions were at best precarious. For fighters at the warfront, combat might not have been a daily affair; but there were other problems during lulls: most of the soldiers had to contend with a plethora of scarcities and sometimes boredom. One way the SPLA fighters utilised their free time was the composition and singing of war songs to boost morale. Members with talents in entertainment through songs, jokes or storytelling, were in high demand. Those who stood out in that sphere included Deng-Fanan, the sarcastic composer and singer, Morris Agany Wek and Atem-Ganuun Malual, the driver of the SPLA Radio team, to cite a few. Although Sebit William didn’t enjoy the adulation his three comrades basked in, his colleagues considered themselves lucky to be in his company as his narratives and jokes were capable of lifting gloom during difficult times such as military reversals, exhaustion or sickness or food shortages.
Aware that the war they were prosecuting was a protracted one while a whole generation was losing formal education, the SPLM/A leadership organised some sort of schools at the area near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. Children living in areas under the rebels’ administration were sent to the border areas which were also centres for the refugees. This arrangement later became controversial. The movement’s adversaries and critics within and foreign media claimed that the youngsters were child soldiers and the SPLM/A was invariably accused of human rights abuses. Whatever the case, in the interest of those youngsters, the movement deployed former teachers- most of them battle-hardened officers- to provide basic formal education as well as general care to the boys. Sebit William Garang was one of those instructors and guardians. Following the 1991, a massive homeward influx of the Sudanese refugees from their camps and bases in Ethiopia happened after government had changed hands in that country.
Those were difficult times for the movement after the split of 1991. Extreme situations demand extreme measures, as they say. And that was what the SPLM/A did. The teenagers had to learn in a militarised system and environment. For their own protection and reasons of discipline, the boys had acquired military training and carried guns.
Palotaka, an old intermediate school in Eastern Equatoria which was under the SPLM/A, was reopened to be an educational centre once again, for those boys. One of Sebit’s former pupils is Ajak Deng Chiengkou, now a promising broadcaster, affectionately remembers his former teacher as a caring teacher who treated his charges as if they were his own children. Via phone, Ajak told me Sebit William once saved him from one of the soldiers who brutally beat him, apparently for no reason, in his words. Perhaps the soldier was trying to show his power over the hapless boy. Ajak added that each time the boys saw Sebit approaching, they would sing in unison “Baba ja, Baba ja”, Arabic for our father has come, a refrain signalling relief and sense of security. For Sebit William, however, being humane, was not to be at the expense of discipline and the school regulations; he dealt firmly with the few wayward pupils, especially the bullies, some the former pupils recall.
When I returned to Juba in 2009, four full years after the CPA, I went to see Professor Job Dharuai Malou, a former colleague of mine who was then minister for Education, I stumbled on Sebit William. He had been assigned to the administrative unit within the ministry’s headquarters. It was in his office where we met. “Wën de Monydït!”, 2 we both shouted excitedly at each other before we hugged, in a long-lost-friends fashion.
We were both pleased to meet again after a long separation. I was pleased that the government led by the SPLM had not forgotten those who had served the country during the war. However, I was saddened to learn that all was not well with him: he was suffering from diabetes. But with great fortitude, he remained cheerful and continued to reported to work daily. It was not long before his condition deteriorated to the point he had to be sent to Egypt for treatment at state expense. But that did not save his life.
The words I heard from Sebit William the day I met him at the Ministry of Education still resonate to me for a strange reason. The words were: “I am happy you have come back to contribute to the nation building”.
I am not sure whether during his last days late Sebit William Garang Dut still believed that we in the SPLM he belonged to and served loyally, were sincerely committed to the national building project anymore. Since December 2013, the agenda ironically, appears to be polarisation driven competing nationalisms and attendant power struggle instead of patriotism for which he and his comrades- both breathing and deceased fought and won the independence now being threatened by the day.
Late Sebit is survived by two wives, several children, among the Susan who is a lawyer. His family must be taking consolation in that his death is a loss to both his former pupils whether before or during the 1983-2005 war; numerous friends; colleagues in the teaching profession; comrades in arms in the SPLA and in the Ministry of Education.
1 Sebit is the Arabic word for Saturday. In Arabic, however, his Dinka name would be ‘Awad, which literally means compensation, in the two languages. In Dinka, however, Col an Acol (the latter is unisex in some Dinka speaking communities) is usually given to a child born after the death of an elder sibling.
2 Wën de monydït means “old man’s son”. This was not meant to be taken literally. It simply means a polite form of address Sebit and I had used throughout the time we had been friends.
Atem Yaak Atem is a South Sudanese journalist and translator.
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