On July 15, 2022, at 3:00 pm (Cairo), I launched my book after tireless months of preparation by the South Sudanese coordination team in Cairo under the young leadership of Luka Jal. The event took place at the beautifully decorated Evangelical Church Attaba at the heart of Cairo, a City that always wins every visiting heart.
As usual, the event kicked off with opening prayers followed by the playing of the National Anthem, and an introduction to my biography before it could open officially.
My wonderful editor and a friend, Kamille Thomas took over the podium, narrating the story behind the book, recounting painful memories, and stressing the courage and boldness with which I approached my story. Kamille told the audience that customs and traditions like early forced and arranged marriages needed to cease. She mentioned that my story should now serve as a painful lesson for the next generation of girls and women. That the why of the book was simply to avoid this kind of thing from recurring. Kamille stressed that the book was here to condemn these practices that violated women and girls' right to belong, to have dignity, and to contribute effectively to the grand design of humanity.
In my author's address, I started by building on Kamille's brief opening speech. I mentioned that at the age of 14, I had dreams. I wanted to go to school just like a normal girl. But I was arranged for and forced to marry a man I did not like. "I was made to respect culture at the cost of my individual freedom," I told them. I also spoke about the need to invest in mental health as a society. I shared my own mental health issues as a practicing nurse without knowing that I needed some help. I revealed to the audience that the most shocking experience that I learned about after my book went viral and during the tour was young men being arranged for and forced to marry women they do not like or even know exist. In the three locations, I had been to prior to Cairo, and from the testimonials, I read from these young men, I learned that negative customs also affect men.
I pushed for a collective, non-gender social change. "It was time for us to talk. This book is no longer about Nyajuok but about you," I urged the audience. Regarding the impact of the book, I told the audience that the impact was exceeding my expectations and by extension, the expectations of my team. In the Juba launch, "I met at least 50% of our political leadership," I revealed. One of those I met was the Governor of Central Equatoria State, Gov. Emmanuel Adil who, after just a few days with my book went on to outlaw child marriage in his state. "That impact is liberating," I told them. I also shared that I envisioned the book to be a mandatory reading in our schools and our national curriculum.
Besides the book, I also shared some of the ongoing and planned projects that I was involved including but not limited to girl-child scholarship, a mentorship program that addresses sex, sexuality, relationship, and mental health issues among others.
I ended my address with the usual appeal that parents needed a grand vision for their girls and that society required new ways to approach family conflicts. That gender-based violence needed to stop for a better South Sudan.
In his guest address, Mr. Andrew Gatleak Daang noted that he found the book interesting because it "reflected a real-life story." Mr. Gatleak, a teacher by profession with over 12 years in teaching said that he was moved by the fact that a South Sudanese was able to write about her sex life. “It is not very easy for our South Sudanese women to expose their personal life. Nyajuok exposed everything about her.” Gatleak said amidst applause from the audience. He also revealed that the book was an easy read with "no need for a dictionary" and that the story was "carefully edited." Quoting Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Gatleak stressed the need to write if one was to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come. "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing," He educated the patient audience. He shared that "if you want to talk to many people, talk to them through books."
Citing the negative traditional practices that undermine the capacity of women and girls in Africa, Gatleak spoke about the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Uganda and articulated the power of local-led advocacy that now outlawed it. He said that such practices needed to stop but would require courage and speaking up. He thanked me for being "a voice for the voiceless." Gatleak also touched on the issue of girls and women choosing to take their lives when things go south. He shared that it was a trend over the past years in Egypt and urged the audience to avoid that path saying "good things will happen" with time.
Dengdit Ayok, one of the guest speakers who also doubled as a journalist, a poet and a writer noted that he was grateful to me. He commended the fact that there were now women writers in our cultural scene. Deng encouraged more women to write about their experiences, saying, "being a writer means being a voice for your community, a messenger and bearer of a message for our society and all of humanity" calling on the audience to provide support and assistance to national writers, just as they encourage other writers from other countries in the world.
The Cairo launch just like I witnessed in other tour locations opened up for discussion. The debate though generally agreed on the need to change things also invited some dissenting voices. One of the speakers from the audience pointed out that the exportation of Western ideas to Africa and its imposition on Africans by Africans who lived in the West, "is unacceptable. " He went on to add that "the problem of Africa is in the West, not Africa here," he argues. This is exactly the kind of debate I want to have. As I always said, I am not against African culture.
But that I would never settle with a voice that does not see the need for social change in the gender space. There is nothing "western" about saying that our girls and women are tired and they need to be treated with dignity. I was not accorded dignity when I was arranged to marry at 14!
Another voice criticized the phenomenon of the marriage of single women and mothers who lost their marriages in the Western world and returned to Africa to marry young boys, as an argument against the marriage of underage girls by older men.
In my response, I said unapologetically, that the practice of old women who return to Africa to marry young boys was the same phenomenon that older men practice in marrying underage girls without their desire, I offered that “let us be fair in this case."
Acknowledgment: This blog post acknowledged the contribution of the Wajuma News, a local news site based in Cairo. I am grateful to them for having published the Cairo launch in their Arabic version which I found very helpful during the time of putting this blog together. You can read about their version here.