Author: Steven Wondu
Publ: Kenway Publications pp259.
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu
The mystery of Steven Wondu’s choice of title is solved when, at some point in his autobiographical narrative, he explains: ‘I truly felt proud to have made it from the bushes of Southern Sudan to the White House of President George W. Bush.’ His, then, can be summarily described as the story of how one man’s personal experience was intertwined with the bigger story that led to the birth, on Saturday, 9 July, 2011 of South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation.
As the journey towards mastery of the English language and a feeling of ease within English culture can be said to be recurring themes of From bush to Bush, its author would, doubtless, appreciate the association of ideas that might lead one, having read his book, to Shakespeare’s Othello. In the beginning of that play, the ‘black’ moor, a successful military general, offers to explain how he managed to conquer the heart of young Desdemona, a ‘white’ man’s daughter, much to the disgust of her father and, indeed, of other racial bigots in the city of Venice. We learn that before Othello became a hated son-in-law he had once been good friends with Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. She would overhear Othello telling Brabantio the story of his life in little snippets, whilst going about her household chores. She was duly impressed and Othello, taking the hint from a conversation with her, found an opportunity to tell her his story himself, in full: ‘She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d;/ And I lov’d her that she did pity them;/ This only is the witchcraft I have us’d.’
Likewise, the story of Steven Wondu’s life, from his birth in Kuku, in his native land to the point at which he chooses to end the telling of it as the still unified Sudan’s ambassador to Tokyo, Japan,(after the stint in Washington alluded to in the title), is bewitchingly extraordinary. As it turns out, Wondu is already taken but, otherwise, there would be a string of enraptured daughters dying to marry him.
Owing to its linear structure, I must resist the urge, as a reviewer, to dilute its eventual impact on other readers by letting its various cats out of the bag, in a manner of writing.
However, I hope that I can be forgiven a return to the random, strands of thought which reading From bush to Bush engendered in my mind:
Take, for one, the notion that to become an emotionally rounded individual, as constantly purveyed by Hollywood, one has to have tender loving care within a close-knit family. And, again, the idea that a sheltered childhood in this day and age should last well into one’s twenties during which time our ‘children’ should enjoy fun and games and be spared all exposure to extreme violence and its resultant trauma. No such luck for Steven Wondu. He was subjected to family schism and to acts of enormous barbarity and cruelty from a very young age. He undertook a daunting journey into Uganda…. alone….. with next to no money and no food. Yet, he still manages to emerge as a confident, unagressive and humane, if doubtful, individual.
And, then again, how does it feel to be a citizen of a given state on paper but to be colonised within that state by fellow citizens of different racial origin who are intent to exploit you – considering any form of complaint from you as ‘childish’ – and to impose their culture upon you, if necessary through arson and the barrel of the gun?
As is well known, many (South) Sudanese people found themselves refugees in neighbouring East African countries. However, what exactly does it mean to be a refugee? What does it mean to be instantly recognisable as being alien and, as a result, to be sidelined, humiliated and insulted on a daily basis? Steven Wondu writes an unsettling, guilt-inducing chapter to give us a fictionalised idea of what it was like to be a (South) Sudanese refugee in Kenya.
And should one make a conscious decision to take an active stand, at what cost does that decision come with regard to such things as having a family of one’s own, bringing up one’s own children and pursuing one’s personal ambitions? How to reconcile self-actualisation and familial responsibility? At one point, Steven Wondu decided to abandon a nondescript but serviceable way of life in a modern town – albeit a foreign one – in favour of joining the struggle for political autonomy in Southern Sudan in the natural ‘bush’ of his title. He did not take up arms, as such, but became the media spokesman for the liberation movement, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves.
So, even as he fielded questions from the BBC’s acerbic reporter Robin White by giving the official line, Wondu was very much alive to internal divisions and jostling for influence. He evokes Dr. John Garang, the leader who died in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash, but admits to having had very little contact with him personally. An admission which points to another endearing quality of Wondu’s From bush to Bush. It could have been so easy for him to seize the opportunity to bask in reflected glory, to advance startling revelations, no matter how contrived, the better to advance sales. Yet, he resists that temptation and what emerges, from this and other instances, is a book for which the adjectives ‘raw’ and ‘sincere’ seem truly appropriate.
Which thought leads to a hope: Namely, that the founding generation of his country, to which the author belongs, by rights, will not forget its sacrifice nor lose sight of the historic calling to lead all its peoples to a better standard of living. Corruption, self-aggrandizement and ethnic power mongering must not be its guiding values. History must not repeat itself on our continent in the case of South Sudan.
It says much for Steven Wondu that he is always at pains to acknowledge those who helped him along the way. Indeed, the last lines of From bush to Bush are in gratitude to Miss Molly Aligawesa, the woman who eschewed bureaucracy to make it possible for him to enroll for his course of choice at Makerere University. Another delight is the frequent injections of Wondu’s dry humour. For instance, he tells us what informed his choosing a university in England for further studies: ‘I was interested in reading books. So I applied to Reading.’ It was surely made clear to him as a growing connoisseur of English language and culture that, spelling notwithstanding, he was headed for the University of ‘Redding’. If, then, he is an author who does bother with reviews, then, to sustain the conceit, this final verdict on his book, in the form of a one line quasi-limerick, will both amuse and please him: From bush to Bush written by a man who went from Kuku to Makerere and applied to Reading challenges our understanding and will prove well worth reading.
From Bush to Bush
Author: Steven Wondu