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South Sudan Poet Writes About Refugee Experience

Nyabuoy Gatbel's first book of poetry, The Fire Within, draws from her experiences as a South Sudanese refugee in Ethiopia.

Nyabuoy Gatbel's poem, "The Sack of Maize," tells the story of the now 21-year-old South Sudanese woman's early childhood in the refugee camp in Ethiopia where she was born.

“UN kept dropping the sack of maize.
It’s incredible how people seem to be amazed.
How is it that food fell from the heavenly sky?
I wonder, how did we get here? I mean, how did we get here?
You see men and women running to get a sack of maize.
You see older adults fighting over food they can grow.
The farmland is left unkempt because the UN provides food now.
Wow. The farm is totally abandoned because it’s too much work.”

"The Sack of Maize" and 34 other poems will be included in a book of poetry, The Fire Within, that Gatbel is self-publishing in June. The book will be published in English and Gatbel's native Nuer language.

Gatbel has been writing poetry since she was a child growing up in Ethiopia and Canada, where she and her family immigrated when she was nine. She says writing helped her, as a child, to express her feelings and try to figure out who she was.

“I felt like a person with so many ideas or ideologies that I have developed throughout the years of being in both places," she says. "I felt like I wasn’t Canadian and I wasn’t technically African enough, and so I kind of felt like my view fell somewhere in the middle. And so, as a kid, to express myself, I would write poetry.”

Gatbel writes mainly of her experiences but also touches on societal issues of race, feminism, poverty, war, and education. She says seeing South Sudanese men mistreat women in Ethiopia and Canada; knowing that South Sudanese women have been – and still are -- deprived of education; and having experienced the impact of war drove her to write her poems.

My God is not Islam or Christianity. My God is beyond labels and limitations of man. My God cannot be contained in a book. My God is not trapped in the pages of man.
Nyabuoy Gatbel

Gatbel says she is wary of what kind of reception her poetry will get among South Sudanese.

"I'm a bit scared because a lot of things in there are really going to challenge social norms," she says. "Our societies are heavily patriarchal, we are not really ready to be questioned, we are not really ready for women to do what they are best at, we are not ready yet. There is a lot that is going on and I feel like we have to talk about the hard stuff if we really want any change in South Sudan.”

Gatbel says women should question why they are kept on the sidelines of politics and society. She urges women not to wait for men to give them permission to do things in life. Gatbel says South Sudanese women must stand up for their daughters so that future generations of women are educated and can make informed decisions about their lives.

And she leads by example. She is in her second year at Mount Royal University in Canada, where she is studying for a bachelor's degree. She has worked as a photographic model, and has entered and won beauty pageants. And her poems, like this one, entitled "God," push the limits of what is culturally acceptable in South Sudan.

"My God is not a he or she.
My God is not a gender but a spirit.
My God is not Islam or Christianity.
My God is beyond labels and limitations of man.
My God cannot be contained in a book.
My God is not trapped in the pages of man.
My God is not a curved idol hanging on the wall.
My God is not the necklace you have on your neck.
My God is not responsible for all the wrong in the world.
My God is boundless and merciful.
My God loves all the gays, bisexual and heterosexuals.
My God is a confidence that lives within us.
My God is a natural loving goodness within all of us.
My God is my God and you can’t put it in a box and you can’t put a definition to it."