Wik Dut has never forgotten the stories elders told him about how to be a responsible man. From his marking at 16 to owning a video cinema in Khartoum to mentoring Sudanese youth in Melbourne, these stories have travelled with him and remained an essential guide.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I was born in Aweil in South Sudan. There were seven children from my Mum including myself.
How many wives did your father have?
My father had two wives. My biological father’s elder brother died when he was eight. In Dinka culture when this happens you will first marry for your brother so that his name will continue. So my biological father married my Mum for his brother.
'We gathered in the morning. We formed a line and our relatives were very proud of us. The marking itself takes about ten to fifteen minutes and is very painful.'
So what did you call your father?
I called my biological father ‘Uncle’. His second wife was the real wife for him. She had three children.
What did your biological father do?
He was the Chief of the village in Aweil East. My biological father was beaten to death in 1986 by an Arab militia during the Second Civil War. His second wife died soon after from heartbreak. My mother ran away to another area where her relatives lived with some of the children including my nephews and cousins. I was living in Khartoum at the time.
What was life like as a little boy in Aweil?
Life was very good. As a young child, we were together with our relatives. I had many cousins, nephews and friends. We talked, played, hunted wild animals, fished and dated girls.
The most important part of my childhood was family discussions. There were lots of discussions with our elders who told us how to be good people. We were taught that the most important thing was to respect other people and do the right thing. We were told not to tell lies, not to listen to rumours. All these discussions took place in the evening after dinner and before we went to sleep.
Do boys have a lot of responsibilities?
Yes. We looked after the cows, goats, sheep. When one of the animals got lost, we were the ones who looked for it and brought it back. And of course, we had to wait around in case the adults needed us to do anything. They would send us to get drinking water or call the elders if there was an important meeting and so on.
As a boy, you also had to take care of your family including your sisters. Girls had to do the cooking and cleaning and more importantly, they were the ones who divided the food onto the different plates for the family. Sometimes when there wasn’t enough food, they would give it to the younger children rather than themselves. They had the responsibility of deciding what we would eat today and what we would eat tomorrow. They were also responsible for collecting water from the well or the river. Sometimes they had to walk two to three hours to get water.
Did you have a lot of water in Aweil?
Yes, we had water but it was not close to our village. The girls and mothers went to collect it but it could take a long time for them to come back with water.
We have four seasons in South Sudan. Spring is the hardest season when the sun is very hot and everything has dried up. During this time, the mothers and girls get up at 4am and walk for two to three hours to get water.
The boys have to get up early as well to take the the goats, sheep and cows to get water. This is a big responsibility because lots of cattle gather at the river and if one of your cattle gets lost, it can be hard to find and then you are in trouble with your elder brother or father.
Do boys spend much time with their sisters?
No, not really. The boys have a good time with fathers and uncles and the girls have a good time with mothers and aunties.
Did you have any free time to play as a boy?
We had to do our work every day but when it was finished we could go and play different sort of games: jumping, running, hearing stories and debating.
Is storytelling important in Dinka culture?
Yes. Stories are very, very important and even now I still remember some of them. Some stories are related to what you should do when you become a man to protect yourself, respect others and have others respect you.
The stories are a sort of history that our people focus on. They tell you what happened a long time ago. They tell you that this man did this and then this happened; that someone did the wrong thing and then ended up with this.
If someone has been successful, then their story may encourage young people to follow this example. And so these stories stick in your mind. Telling stories is very important.
Who would tell these stories?
Our father, uncles, elders or family friends would tell stories. Every night, we would make a fire and sit around and our father would tell us stories. Most of the stories he told were about what is required to become a good leader. You need to be brave, be positive, use respectful words, you don’t lie, you don’t talk back to people, you show perseverance, all these sort of things.
Every now and then, he would point to one of us and say, ‘Look at this boy. He is behaving like the man I was just talking about’. So we tried to become like the person he described.
So it was important for the boys to hear how to be good men?
Yes. Aunties and mothers would also tell us stories. They told us how to be a good person; you are not allowed to do this and you are not allowed to do that. And they would explain the history of some people; the things they had done and what happened to them afterwards. And that was very important too.
Does Dinka culture have a rite of passage into manhood?
Yes, it does. You may have seen some of the men have marks on their forehead. I have them myself. You get those marks from the age of thirteen to seventeen and once you have them you are considered to be a responsible man.
The marks are a sign of bravery and good character because before and after you get marked, you sit with the wise people and they talk to you. They tell you that once you have got this mark, you are not allowed to steal, to cry, to lie, to run away if there is a war or to drink alcohol. If you don’t have anything to eat, you cannot beg; it’s better to die than to ask people to give you something to eat. You are taught all these things.
So why do some men have those marks and others don’t?
Back home, some people are scared and some are students who are not allowed to have the marks at school. Most of those who are marked come from families who deeply believe in Dinka culture or are villagers.
It also depends on your mother, father and yourself. It was my mother who insisted that I get marked.
So it was important to your Mum that you were marked?
Yes. My older brother had died and because I was the one after him I was considered to be the first born. She thought that if my father died then maybe I could become the Chief of the village if I was living in the area. That is why she insisted for me to be marked so people would not criticise me and say how can this boy lead us. She said, ‘How come my son doesn’t have this mark while my friends’ children do?’ When I heard this, I went home and got marked.
And does it hurt?
Oh, it hurts, it hurts. It has to be done using a very sharp knife. They cut your head more than 10 times from front to back if you are from Dinka Rek and more than twenty times around if you are from Dinka Agaar or Dinka Padang.
And above all, you are not allowed to move, you are not allowed to cry, you are not allowed to do anything that makes people laugh.
Can you tell me about the day you got marked?
We gathered in the morning. There were about 36 of us, young men of various ages.
We were given one name to call out, 'tiet bai' which means 'protect our community'.
This is because from that day on, we had to make sure our village was respected by other villages.
We formed a line and our relatives were very proud of us. Girls we were dating were there to witness how brave we were and to support us so that we didn’t cry in front of other people.
The marking itself takes about ten to fifteen minutes and is very painful.
There was blood everywhere and relatives were burning wood so they could put our heads near the smoke to stop the bleeding.
How old were you?
I was 16 years old but some of my friends were 14 and one was twelve. He was young to be marked but his father had died and his relatives wanted him to be responsible for his family.
So after this ceremony, you are considered a man?
Manhood starts when you have a mark in Dinka culture. After the marking ceremony, you are given one of the best bulls from your father’s herd. Later when you marry, this bull will be part of the dowry you pay to your wife’s family. And once you are marked, you can be put in charge of anything. If your father is Chief and getting old or he has died, then you can be appointed Chief of the village.
Did you mix with other ethnic and religious groups when you were growing up in South Sudan?
Yes, in South Sudan, there were different types of people around when I was growing up. In my village, most people were traditional believers. There were Dinka and Lou as well as Muslims and Anglicans. But in the town of Aweil, we were mainly Catholic. We played together and there was no problem between us. In Dinka culture, if a stranger comes to the community, we have to accept him and treat him with absolute respect.
Did you go to school?
I started school in 1988 when I was about twenty. I don’t know exactly when I was born. I had tried to go to school before I got the mark but was not successful. I went to a school called Comboni in Khartoum. It had adult education.
What made you go back to school?
It was actually because of one of my Arab friends who used to read the newspaper in the morning. One day, he read something about the South Sudanese rebels and then started talking and laughing about it with someone else. I asked him what the article said and he ignored me. I decided to go back to school so that I could read the newspaper myself.
What did you study at the Comboni School?
I worked through the primary books until I finished Year Six. Then I went to secondary school and did Junior Seven and Junior Eight which was equivalent to Years Seven and Eight in Australia.
I was supposed to sit the Junior Certificate for Year Nine but had gotten married and couldn’t afford to continue. That was 1991. Then one of the Sisters decided to sponsor my school fees so that I could keep studying.
I did the Junior Certificate and was going into Year Ten when the Sudanese government brought in Arabic as the language of education. This affected South Sudanese students. I had done all my study in English which was now banned.
The government of Sudan did not allow people to speak English. If they heard you speaking English, security could take you to gaol. They tortured you and did all these things. I didn’t speak English for almost four years and I lost a lot of my English vocabulary. When I came to Australia, I had to start from the beginning.
Do you speak Arabic?
I can read and speak Arabic but I cannot write it.
You ended up in Khartoum in the mid-1980s, what was life like for you there?
Early on life in Khartoum was not bad but then it became terrible.
I got married and I started my own business in 1993. I had a video cinema in a displaced camp in Khartoum South. I bought a very big TV and I ordered video tapes from Egypt, India, some Arab countries and China. Around 300 to 400 people used to come to watch a video every night.
I charged them one Sudanese dinar (pound) each. School children with a good record at the community school could enter free of charge as a way of encouraging them to do their studies. Most of these children came from illiterate families and I wanted them to work hard on their education.
I bought a generator so that I had my own electricity. I did this for almost five years.
In 1998, somebody went to the government and said, ‘This guy’s videos are generating a lot of money and he is sending it to the rebels’.
I was arrested and put in military detention for six months.
Everything was confiscated: all my videos, my TV and couches.
I was released on the condition that I would not leave the country and would not go to community meetings. I was very active in the community at that time. I used to talk to people and encourage them to get educated. I told them not to give up because one day we would have our own country. I was out for two months before I got arrested again. I was later released and told that I was not to go anywhere.
Then one day, a former Minister of Finance from Aweil who had negotiated my release with military intelligence came and told me to leave immediately because they were going to kill me. An Arab friend of his who was in the government made arrangements for me and my family to go to Egypt. I was put on a truck from Khartoum to Atbara in North Sudan where I met my wife and children. Then we took a goods train to Halfa and caught a boat to Egypt. And that is how we left the country.
How old were your children then?
At that time, I had only one child but we were caring for my uncle’s three children and my sister-in-law. I put them down as my children because otherwise they would not have been allowed out of Sudan. I was worried that if I left them in Sudan they would be executed.
My uncle, the father of these children was a police officer. He had been injected with the wrong medicine in a teaching hospital in Khartoum and died. We were caring for my sister-in-law who was a small child at the time because her mother and brother had been kidnapped by an Arab militia. My mother-in-law was gone for six years but my brother-in-law never returned.
Where in Egypt did you go?
I went to Cairo.
What year was that?
We arrived on 2 January 1999.
What was life like in Cairo?
It was much better than Sudan. Every Sunday, we could go to church and after mass, the Bishop would give us ten Egyptian pounds each; that helped us a lot. And the Egyptians, especially the Orthodox community, were friendly to the South Sudanese.
Where do you live?
In an apartment at Darmirdish.
Was it expensive to live in Cairo?
Yes. It was very expensive. I was working as a welder in a boat company and my wife was working as well. Even with all this, we had very little money and struggled to pay our monthly rent.
Did you go to UNHCR?
Yes, I did but I was rejected.
Some of the chiefs who went to Khartoum were cooperating with the Sudanese Government. When they heard that my father was a chief they didn’t believe me even though I told them that he had been killed in Aweil and had not gone to Khartoum. There was only me in Khartoum.
What happened next?
I was thinking of going back to South Sudan when peace came and I did not go back to UNHCR to appeal the decision.
When I was in Khartoum, I had many friends. One of my friends, Garang had been accepted to go to Australia. When he got there, he wanted to sponsor me but I told him ‘No’ because he was a young guy who had just married. I did not want him to have this huge responsibility.
I said, ‘Even if I give you my documents, how you will accommodate me and my family’.
But he said, ‘Don’t worry, give me your documents and I will do my best’.
Garang sent me a form and I submitted it to the Australian Embassy.
After eight months, they called me for an interview and I was accepted to come to Australia.
When did you arrive?
23 May 2001.
You were one of the first Sudanese families to come here?
There were a few here but not many.
Who did you come with?
My wife and my two children as well as my uncle’s three children and my sister-in-law. The older children were aged about ten to thirteen when we arrived.
What were the early days in Australia like?
At first, it was very scary. We were given four weeks accommodation in Auburn. The first week, it rained the whole week.
Every morning, my wife would look out of the window and say, ‘It's still raining’. The streets were very quiet. Nobody was walking around.
We thought, ‘This is the bush, this is not a city. Why did they bring us here?’
It must have seemed very quiet after Cairo...
Yes. Cairo is very busy. In the morning, people sell vegetables and make noise on the street. You see ten people standing there talking, people having coffee in shops. We thought Australia would be noisier than Egypt. But there was nobody driving a car, nobody talking on the street. There were no shops, nothing. It was too quiet.
The mosque was in front of us and so we thought someone was going to announce the prayers but nothing. It was really very hard for us to understand. We were worried.
Were the shops here different to those in Cairo as well?
We were worried about the shopping because we didn’t know about shopping centres. And we were surprised by the shopping. When we found Coles at Auburn and went there to buy milk for the children, we thought that someone was going to ask us what we wanted and then I would give him a list.
I had written down what we want to buy and I had attached $50 to the list. We went around and around and noticed that everyone was busy grabbing products from the shelves.
Then my wife said, ‘I think we should get what we want because I see people serving themselves’. So we realised that you go in and get what you want and then go to the register and pay. That was difficult for us as well.
In Egypt, you ask someone for something and you stay there. They give you something and all you do is pay and collect your goods. But here in Australia, you push the trolley, chose everything and then come back to pay. That was hard for us to get used to.
Who did you live with when you arrived?
When I received the visa, I went to the Australian Embassy and told them that the person who sent me the form wouldn’t be able to accommodate us because he is a young guy.
I said that I left Sudan because of the situation I mentioned before and that I should be eligible to be a refugee.
I said, ‘I don’t have money to pay the airfares now but if there is an organisation in Australia that can provide me with tickets, I will pay them back immediately once I get a job’.
So the lady at the embassy said, ‘Give me one week and I will see what I can do’.
She then called me and said that they had transferred our visas so that the government would pay for our tickets and provide our accommodation.
How long did they pay for your accommodation?
They told me four weeks but I found a place and we moved after three weeks.
Did you have to pay the government back for your airfares?
I tried to pay them back. After I had been here for two months, I saved some money and went to the Immigration Office. But they told me that you are a refugee and you don’t have to pay anything so use this money to buy your car, whatever you want. That was fantastic. I came back and talked to my wife and we decided to buy our first car in Australia; a 1987 Toyota Camry.
What about learning English?
That was the hard part for us. We went to ACL (Australian Centre for Languages) and they gave us a lot of paper and we thought that someone was going to help us to do this or that. But no one did.
Then next day, you would go again and they would give you another sheet of paper and then the next day, another one. It was really confusing.
We also had difficulty with English words like 'Yep' and 'Wow'. We thought that Australians didn’t speak English. We were used to British English.
How did you go finding your way around?
The Department of Immigration gave us a lady who was really lovely. I still think about how much she helped us and wonder how she is doing. Her name was Lale. I think she was from Turkey or Yugoslavia. She was our Case Manager at the Auburn Migrant Centre. She used to come to us in the morning and take us wherever we wanted to go. She was the one who found a house for us.
Later, I tried to go back and find her to thank her but she had left. She was really the one who gave us a good start to knowing everything in Australia.
Was it hard to get a job?
No, because when I came here I was a welder. I got a welding job in Sydney and then I worked as a store manager with a company in Toongabbie. I then got a Security Licence and worked in different places in security services.
How did your children adjust to life in Australia?
They adjusted very quickly and now our children are different to the adults.
Had they been to school in Khartoum and Egypt?
Yes. I had put them in Catholic schools where they started the day with prayer. When we first arrived, they went to Auburn Public School but they were confused because there were no prayers. I was told that Catholic schools were very expensive here and that because we Africans had a lot of children, the Catholic schools wouldn’t accept them.
How did you meet Sister Maria?
Sr Maria met my cousin’s son Kir outside our apartment in Auburn. When I came back from shopping, she was waiting to meet me. I thanked her and explained in my broken English that we were Catholic and had been forced to leave our country because of our faith.
How important was meeting Sr Maria?
That was very important. I had been thinking about my children and their future as Catholics. I wanted to send my children to a Catholic school but didn’t think I could. When we talked to Sr Maria, she said that the children could go to Catholic schools.
She went to St John’s Catholic Primary School in Auburn and there was a priest there, Fr Peter. He was fantastic, a real gentleman. And he said, ‘From now on, we want your children to come here’. So my children started to go to St John’s. They gave them uniforms and there was no charge.
The Principal, Mary MacDougall was amazing. She came to our house and sent a lot of volunteers to teach us English and do a shopping list. And that’s also how I found a Catholic church near to where we lived.
Sr Maria has done a lot to help our community. First, she asked me to find out if there were any other refugees from Sudan who needed help with English or second hand furniture. I got in contact with other refugees and she organised furniture, clothes, fridges and washing machines for them because at that time the government did not provide any of those things. But Sr Maria did. God bless Sr Maria.
Was it better for your children at the Catholic school?
Yes, it was much better. And they learned there very quickly.
Helen Campbell was at St John’s working with the Sudanese children?
Yes, she was. She did a great job. I think we were the second Sudanese family at St John’s.
How did your wife find coming to Australia?
She was fine. We used to plan to do our shopping together. We supported each other and she supports me very much.
How did you start to come together as a Catholic community?
When I came here, there was an Aweil community but not yet a Catholic community.
Some Sudanese Catholics were going to Blacktown to an Anglican church called the South Sudanese Fellowship. We agreed that we needed to have our own Catholic community.
I told Sr Maria that we are a community and we need help from you because we want to see the Bishop if we can. Sr Maria said that she would organise the Bishop but we had to think about what we were going to say.
What did you want to see the Bishop about?
I wanted to explain to him that we had been victimised in Sudan because of our faith. That we needed help because our people back in Egypt and Kenya were suffering. We could send them a form to apply to come to Australia but if they were accepted they didn’t have the money to pay for their airplane tickets.
We asked for a place for them to stay as we all had big families and couldn’t accommodate them in our own houses.
Because resettlement was so difficult, we wanted two social workers to help our newcomers settle in.
We also needed a place to pray because we were Catholics but didn’t have a place to pray on Sundays.
So did you meet as a community to discuss all this?
I organised a meeting in my house and I called Anna and Kuac. We met with Sr Maria and explained our position.
Sr Maria said, ‘We are going to meet with Bishop David Cremin’. Then we called another meeting to inform our people that we were going to meet the Bishop to explain our concerns.
After that, we had a meeting with Cardinal Pell to ask for his support. He noted everything down and he said, ‘According to the will of God, we will be able to do what we can’. It was a successful meeting. The Cardinal appointed a pastoral care worker, gave us a centre in Homebush West and did so many other good things. Because of him, our children got a Catholic education. Some of them are at university now or are graduates and working.
How important was St Bakhita Centre to the community?
That was really important because our people got to know each other at St Bakhita’s.
When did you move to Melbourne and why?
I moved to Melbourne in 2008 because I tried to buy a house in Sydney and it was very expensive. I also wanted to finish my education. I had completed a Business Management and Innovation Diploma and I wanted to do a degree in that field. But I didn’t get a place at a university in Sydney but was accepted into a degree at Victoria University in Melbourne.
What has changed for the men in coming to Australia? Is it very different being a man in Australia compared to in Sudan?
Not really. It is even tougher back in Sudan.
Why? What is tougher about being a man back in Sudan?
Yes, indeed it is tougher because you are responsible for your family and relatives. Here you are only responsible for your immediate family and my wife is working as well. She pays our expenses. In Sudan, a man is responsible for a lot more.
What about the boys? You hear a lot of media reports, especially in Melbourne, about the South Sudanese boys?
Well, you know most of the things that you hear about are exaggerated by the media. Sometimes it is not even South Sudanese boys who are doing the wrong thing but other African and Australian-born boys as well. And the media blames us, especially some media outlets which is doing a lot of damage to the South Sudanese community in Victoria.
What about your children and other teenagers you know, are they adjusting okay?
They are doing well. My eldest daughter goes to university with me.
So you have six children of your own and four others that you have raised?
How hard is it to preserve your culture and your language here?
It is difficult because children often only want to speak English. I talk to my children twice a month about our culture. I explain our core values what it involves and what you should do. So we have discussions on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.
Do you tell them the stories you heard as a young boy?
Yes, I do. And sometimes, I ask them to invite their relatives and friends. If they are following the wrong path, I talk to them politely. And now sometimes they call me and say, ‘Uncle, can we talk?’ I find time and talk to them. That is something I have to do. Tell them the old stories and the benefits of them.
Looking back, what do you think has been the greatest achievement for yourself, your family and the community?
Actually, there are a lot of achievements. I have a friend who was here and has gone back to South Sudan. And he had learned a lot; how to be polite and how to avoid corruption; the community connection, volunteering and other things.
Being here, has taught us lots of values and how to do the right thing.
What challenges does the community still face?
The main challenge the community has at the moment is the stereotypes that I just mentioned. Some people when they see South Sudanese people, they think about gangs and all these things. That is difficult for us. The media is doing a lot of damage to our community at the moment.
I used to be Chairman of the Dinka community in Victoria and I talked to people to show the good side instead of the bad side. That is a real challenge. I hope that these stereotypes can be changed in the years to come to show the positive attitudes of our people.
We are a good community with good values; we respect others, we are hard working and wish everyone all the best.