Saturday, March 31, 2012


One of the blacksmiths, notice the wheel used to fan the coals.

I’ve wanted to get spearheads and bracelets as gifts for some time now, but I’ve had disappointing luck. No one seems to know where to go. Each time I asked around in Tonj, my friends shook their heads sadly and said, “That. That is only in cattle camp.”
-- “They do not have any in town?”
-- “No. Cattle camp only.”

Would I really have to go to a cattle camp to get a spear? 
      -- I guess so.

Eventually, I attempted to buy stuff off strangers in the streets. But invariably the conversation was always end in the same way.
-- “Hi. Did you rise well from your sleep?” I’d ask in greeting.
They’d smile, stop, then ask in return,“Did you rise well?”
-- “Yes,” I’d respond, “My body is well. Is your body well?”
-- “Yes. My body is well, too.”
-- “My name is Akuac...” I’d continue, extending my hand in greeting. From there we’d exchange names three or four generations back, so we’d know which clan we are from. Naturally this takes a bit of time, but it is always fun.

After the formal greeting was over, I’d find someone with better Dinka skills to translate.
-- “Would you sell me your spear?” I’d ask. It’s best to be clear right off.
-- “Ehh? You want my spear?” they’d gauff in confusion. 
-- “Yes. Will you sell it to me? I’ll give you a good price.”
-- “No. I do not want to sell it. What will I fish with tomorrow?”
-- “But don’t you have another one?”
-- “No,” they’d say, then walk off leaving me pleasantly frustrated.

To be honest, I love that commercialism has yet to come to Tonj. However, that means no spears for me.

Well... Rumbek was a different story.

In Rumbek I found the spears, daggers, and bracelets I’d been looking for all in one place. But I also paid Kowaja prices for them. When my friends in Tonj heard how much I paid, they clicked their tongues in disappointment.
-- “You paid too much,” one friend complained. “Three times more than a Dinka.”

I couldn’t help but smile at his concern. It is true. I paid too much... but at least I didn’t have to go to the cattle camp to find them. And at least I didn’t have to beg them off a stranger in the street.

Anyway back to my story...

Finding the blacksmiths in Rumbek was not easy. I needed a guide.

Jumping on the back of a friend’s motorbike, we zipped through the city center, passing tea stalls and mechanic shops along the way. A right turn down a potholed road, zig-zagged us passed schools, then churches, then a whole mess of tukels.

Another right turn drove us into what looked like someone’s backyard. Bamboo fences. Children running about. Goats.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the cattle auction where dozen of spectators crowded the bamboo corral to get their bids in. Goats complained and cows lowed loudly in protest. It looked interesting, but we didn’t have time to stop; the blacksmiths were just up ahead.

Men hammering out cooking utensils and spears.

Cooking woks made from barrels.
Once the rumble of the bike’s engine cut out, new noises took over. Sharp clanks of metal upon metal cluttered the background.

Steel. Iron. Sparks. Soot. Dirt.

Thin, low-hanging stalls lined one side of the road, each displaying their wares on makeshift tables.

Spears. Daggers. Cow bells. Bracelets.

I found what I was looking for almost immediately, but the price they gave me was high. I wanted to haggle... but the Dinka don’t seem to have learned this skill yet.

Was I willing to fork out three dollars for something I knew should only cost a dollar fifty? When I put it that way... I laughed.

Yes. I was willing.

The bracelets were made out of melted bullet casings. They heat them over coal fires, mold them, then hammer them out.

I also wanted a spear made, but I had to wait for them to fashion it right. While I waited, one of the blacksmiths thrust a large bracelet in my face.

It was easily three times heavier than the other bracelets I’d purchased. Its deep cross-cut patterns were carefully etched on both ends.


--“Is this a nose ring?” I asked, lifting it to my nose jokingly. I was trying to make him laugh.
He smirked and shook his head. So I lifted it to my ear and asked, “Is it for my ear?”

This got me a few chuckles, but again he just shook his head. 

Then I tried to open it by prying it with all my strength, but it wouldn’t budge. So I complained, “How can I wear this... it’s too hard to open.”

One man stepped forward to explain in English. I knew what he was going to say, but I wanted to hear him say it anyway.
-- “This. This you must beat on with hammer.”
-- “Okay. You tell your friend, if he can get it on my arm, I will buy it.”

The blacksmith smiled at this news, then moved under the stall for his hammer. Signaling for me to follow, he pried it open with a crowbar then placed it around my wrist.

Next, he placed both bracelet and wrist on a worn anvil and started pounding.

I can’t say he was careful --as I still have a few bruises-- but I can say he was successful.

What an adventure!

I love my new bracelet but now that it is hammered on my wrist, the question is.... how will I get through airport security?