“No River Between Us,” An Interview with Jeffery Deal, author

This Thursday night, March 20, is a special Book Club meeting here on Dewees Island, and a conversation with Dewees Islander Jeffery Deal, author of this month’s book. As we discussed in an earlier post, one of the really awesome things about book club is the chance to read books you otherwise wouldn’t. I probably NEVER would have picked out this book, but once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Jeff has written a nuanced, thoughtful, compelling story of Africa and personal transformation. I loved the language and poetry of his descriptions, and I was engrossed in the action of the book. I was not alone; Jane and Carroll Savage sent the book to their daughter Allison, who is currently with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, headquartered in Nairobi. She said,

I thought it was just beautifully written. It was an extremely respectful and honest portrayal of South Sudan, of the Dinka, of that place and that time. I didn’t actually overlap with Jeff, but in 1991, when I was on my Watson Fellowship, Jason and I were there during the great Dinka Famine… I found the descriptions- the smell of the early morning fires, the ash, the flies of the mosquito camps, the muddy waters of the Nile — all so familiar. But then Jeff offered something more than I ever had — which was this internal monologue which helped so much to make sense of what I experienced as an outsider…So reading this book was amazing — it reminded me of my time there but also gave me subtitles to the film that I never had. Please thank Jeff for writing such a beautiful and thoughtful book and thanks to you for pushing me to read it.

Allison’s description of her impressions of the Dinka people echo many of Jeff’s:

I found the Dinka to be some of the kindest, wisest and most gracious people I have ever worked with — you could sit at dusk, as the old men and women sucked on
their long-stem pipes, and feel a peace that did not deserve to exist in the chaos that were the Dinka ancestral lands at that point.

Allison’s experiences eventually led her to a career in international nutrition. Allison is the Senior Regional Nutrition and Food Security Officer for UNHCR based in Nairobi, Kenya. She works with refugees in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Kenya. Click here for the full text of her letter.

Dr. Jeffery Deal in Sudan
Dr. Jeffery Deal in Sudan

I tried to formulate some of my questions for Jeff in advance of his talk. He’ll be talking about his book tomorrow night at Huyler House at 6:30, bring a beverage and a nibble.

What made you decide to write this story?

I believe that fiction is a more powerful tool than nonfiction to mold our collective consciousness and inform us about parts of the world that differ significantly from our own. While performing anthropological research, I commonly utilize a somewhat labor-intensive tool which produced the vast majority of the materials for this book. As I learn about the people I am studying, I will take some specific ritual or belief and write a fictionalized account where local people practice or execute this specific event. This exercise always reveals severe deficiencies in my understanding of their practices and what it means to them. Put in anthropological terms, what I learn from the etic perspective (view from the outside) I try to express in the emic perspective (view from the inside). My ethnography of the Dinka Agar, published by Markoulakis Publications under the title, A Land At the Center of the World, is full of details and analysis that one would expect from an academic work. I have found, however, that the fiction can be a much more textured tool for communicating reality than is nonfiction. They both have their functions, but fiction is a tool that allows a writer to draw the reader into a story and feel what the characters feel – see, hear, and smell the world with them.

This work was originally just such an exercise, a humble attempt to fuse the etic and the emic of my experiences in South Sudan where I worked intermittently for six years as both an anthropologist and a physician. As the story grew, I became drawn into it myself and, as work on the academic text drew to a close, I felt compelled to complete the novel. I wanted to see where it led.

Was there a truth that needed telling?

Despite their many hardships, these regions and the people that inhabit them contain the most resilient and cohesive communities of caring individuals I have seen in any of the twenty-two other countries I where have visited and worked. They possess a spirit of communal belonging that is beautiful to experience if even from an outsider’s distant perspective. But as is the case for most of us, our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness. Often the struggle for survival has forced ethnicity onto people who are not well served by modern political or cultural boundaries. Theses identities can turn with disturbing rapidity to a type of ethnic-bound loyalty which expresses itself in the Rwandan massacres, Darfur’s ongoing genocide, and the wholesale rape and enslavement of women and children—often with senseless violence and disregard for human life so horrible that the senses numb. Extremes within extremes. But inhabiting these extremes are a highly marginalized people who deserve recognition and a voice. They are not, as I have heard them described, a “primitive people”, in any way except that they lack most modern technologies. They possess intricate relationships, a rich and complex culture, history, and sophisticated philosophies—in many ways more so than those found in western urban cultures. In a word, they are humans whose similarities with the rest of us far outweigh their differences and whose worth is equal to our own. I am blessed to have known them.

As they emerge from nearly half a century of continuous war through a trail of other wars and attempt to lead their countrymen into the complexities and dangers of a global economy, Dinka leaders must contend with the realities of these and other deeply ingrained traditions that conflict with and destabilize available social support systems and impair uniform participation in any potential benefits of modernization. As the most glaring example of this phenomenon, the people of the cattle camps lack such basics as education, police protection, healthcare, and reliable access to safe water. Their previously revered status is changing to one of shame and revulsion. It appears inevitable that the songs of the cattle camp will soon fall silent. With few exceptions, the world will not notice their passing.
This is an inevitable loss that must be mourned, a story that must be told.

Are there changes you are advocating for (or hoping for) in the telling of this story?


Did you ever feel unsafe when you were traveling in Africa?

We have had a few moments here and there. Perhaps those are stories for another time. By and large, in South Sudan we were the protected and honored guests of who must be the most hospitable people on earth.

You do a nice job describing some of the complexities and confusion around war:  “Surely there are no men alive more free than we Dinka, I thought. We come and go as we please. We go to bed when we want. We fish or hunt when and where we want.” Is this a statement about how the perspectives of outsiders are changing native populations?

There have been quite a few anthropological works around the concept of freedom and how we are constrained by a very Western idea of its meaning. Mostly, they just want us to leave them alone, or help them in the ways that they request, so, yes.

The shackled photo was taken at a prison where we were doing vaccinations during a meningitis outbreak. I called it Dinka In Chains and it won an award from the American Anthropological Association a few years back.

Etiquette plays a big role in your book. How long did it take you to learn some of these intricacies? Were any on the anecdotes in the book based on a personal faux pas?

I would say that I am still learning. Of course, I think I am still learning Charleston etiquette despite having a home here for decades.
I make a cameo appearance in the story as the doctor who was walking with his daughter while we ate mandasis, a major breach of etiquette. The ladies actually did say, as in the book “you will never get married with such bad manners” as we passed. I also had to learn how to offer and accept food, when to turn it down… We had to be careful, for instance, when you went to someone’s home they may offer you the last bit of food that they have.

There is some very poetic language in this book:
“touched us somewhere in our chests where men hide secrets and try to kill their fears”
“There is no river between us”
“We always return to the land, and the invaders always leave. It is our curse and our blessing, this vast land. This is the way Nhialic protects us who live at the center of things where all life began.” Do you read poetry in your spare time?

I am afraid that the most sophisticated poetry I read is Shel Silverstein. But the Dinka language is highly metaphorical and itself is a type of innate poetry. “There is no river between us” is a great example. While investigating the source of a recurring conflict between the Agaar tribe of Dinka and the nearby Atuot, I encountered a phrase which exemplifies the rich metaphorical nature of the Dinka language while conveying the need for what often seems an unreachable peace. In their ruminations on why peace should exist between the two tribes, several individuals stated that “we are one people as there is no river between us.” In a land where bridges are scarce and water a much fought for resource, a river is a formidable obstacle to civil unity. From my tent compound I could walk from the Agaar territories into the Atuot lands in less than an hour without crossing a bridge. But I heard this same euphemism used of people between whose lands there were indeed geographic rivers. What I came to understand was that the Dinka meant that there is no reason that the Agaar and the Atuot should not think of themselves as one people and therefore coexist in peace.

Your deep respect for the traditions and spirituality of the Dinka culture come through clearly to the reader. Were there ever any conflicts with your own perspectives?

Oh, yes. For small particulars, don’t ever insinuate that a Dinka took too much food or don’t ever even think about taking their tea away from them. Long story. Mostly, however, people everywhere can be tolerant of these conflicts as long as we otherwise treat them with respect and dignity and show that we are trying.
On a larger scale, I wrote an article for American Anthropologist on entitled Torture By Cieng, describing some incidences I personally witnessed. In these cases our concept of individual crime and punishment (egocentric view) is in direct conflict with their more global, or sociocentric justice. This was, for me, a huge problem with which I still struggle today.

Tell us more about Joseph Kony?

Leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. His presence came about from ethnographic research I did in Uganda for Water Missions International. The local clinic had posters showing children being beheaded and warning parents about the dangers of this practice. In the interviews we gained a greater understanding of this issue and how the practice of child sacrifices had infiltrated the region.
Walumbe is a real village on the shores of Lake Victoria where I conducted many of those interviews. As in the book, the name means “Place of Death.” I have actually sat in the building where, in the book (not in real life), the LRA kept these children.


I find myself saddened by some of the loss of innocence here, particularly the moment when Thon realizes the inadequacy of his weapons… is this a sad story? Is there redemption in the end?

These wars are real. The Battle of the Bar Naam River was real. That much death is always sad.
Redemption? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide. I like the way you phrased the question: “…the loss of innocence here.” That is the center of the story of how this young man was drawn into the conflict and how he longs to return to the innocent and simple life.

How would you describe the situation in Sudan today?

The same ethnic groups are again killing each other. As I write this, the hospital we built has just closed, donor nations are pulling out, the UN is asking for attack helicopters to stop the White Army (Nuer), and a couple of hundred thousand more refugees have fled the countryside. It is not good and the war is not even close to being over. There are too many forces in play that do not benefit from peace. Only some of those forces are local.

You are currently very involved with Water Missions International. What do you do there? Is that organization changing the dynamics in Africa?

I am the Director of Health Studies for WMI, mostly designing and managing large scale research. In the places where WMI works, they are having a profound impact on the health and cultures. But the scale of these problems is immense, so detecting changes in a continent as large and diverse as Africa is problematic. “Better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” WMI lights cities of candles.

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