June 2, 2005
Anuak Women Sweeten the Bitter Life
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
MINNEAPOLIS, MN -- “We
thank our husbands for staying home today to change our children’s diapers,” a Minnesota woman belonging
to the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia said the other day. “We could have
put the children in daycare for the day, but then we wouldn’t have
any money left over.”
At a crowded Minneapolis meeting hall last weekend, some 50 Anuak women
gathered to anxiously discuss, to sometimes weep, and above all to intently
compare notes with each other on the best ways to raise their children
born in America, so far from their African homeland.
The call for diaper duty gratitude to husbands earned polite applause.
But when Akuthi Okoth, an Anuak woman who’d flown in from Indianapolis
for the day, rose to speak she struck a deeper chord that stirred a thoughtful
silence followed by appreciative cheers.
“Sisters, listen!” she thundered. “You put your husbands through
school here in the U.S., while taking care of your
children all by yourself. Yet when your husbands finish school, they don't
help you go to school yourself. Sisters, you must insist! It is your right to
“If the men are going to sit around that’s fine,” Okoth pleaded, “but
we aren’t going to wait for them. We’ll
get up and get things going and see what we can do.”
It was a typical women’s rally in some ways, with a familiar bill
of complaints voiced by frustrated women against wayward men.
Yet Mommy Track issues were the least of the problems discussed, and
the Minnesota Anuak women’s dilemma is greater even than
the culture shock, loneliness, and exhaustion that all immigrant mothers
They are trying to keep themselves and their children healthy and sane
while their very culture – parents, grandparents,
brothers, sisters, friends, and the entire African
society that first gave them
grounding in the world -- is being driven towards
extinction by genocide.
The 1,500 Anuak immigrants in Minnesota – more than anywhere in
the world outside of western Ethiopia -- are here because the Ethiopian
government has been ethnically cleansing their tribe for more than a
On December 13, 2003, the bloodiest day in Anuak history horrifically
unfolded when uniformed Ethiopian soldiers flooded the Anuak capital
town of Gambella and went door to door, dragging Anuak men and boys from
their homes and shooting them dead in the streets.
More than 420 Anuak men died that day in Gambella, and several hundred
others were killed as Ethiopian troops fanned throughout Anuak territory
where they burned entire villages to the ground, raped women, and looted
and burned field crops and stored grains. The marauding continues today.
Virtually every Anuak woman at the Minneapolis meeting had therefore
lost fathers, brothers, and close friends in the massacre.
“It makes you very sad and bitter,” said Akuthi Okoth. “Anuak
women still in Ethiopia live without their husbands
or sons, and they are still being raped, and their children destroyed. Those
have no voice, but we Anuak women in the United States
can be their voice.”
Because more than 10,000 Anuak were driven to flee their homes after
the December 13 massacre, all of the Anuak women at the Minneapolis meeting
had relatives and friends now living in refugee camps, one of them located
in the parched Sudan desert, and the other in a putrid Nairobi slum.
Hundreds of Anuak men and boys are also being held without charge in
federal prisons in Gambella and in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa,
where stories of torture and extrajudicial killings are rampant.
The December 13, 2003 massacre was first reported in The McGill Report
on December 22, 2003, after dozens of Anuak living in Minnesota received
frantic cell phone calls from their relatives in Ethiopia while the massacre
was still underway.
This March, Human Rights Watch, the world’s largest human rights
organization, released a report stating that the Ethiopian army “has
committed widespread murder, rape, and torture” against the Anuak
“The widespread attacks directed against the Anuak civilian population,” the
report said, “bear the hallmark of crimes against
humanity under international law. In many areas,
abuses are ongoing and frequent.”
The Anuak community of Minnesota has worked closely over the past two
years with local churches and student groups to hold educational meetings
and fundraisers to buy food and clothing for Anuak refugees, and to pay
for trips by Anuak leaders to the U.S. State Department and the United
More than $50,000 in relief funds has been raised, and the Human Rights
Watch report is testimony to the Anuak’s success at raising world
awareness of the Anuak genocide.
Yet all has not gone smoothly with the Minnesota Anuak’s efforts
to absorb the tragedy in their homeland, and to help their endangered
The problem, the Anuak women stressed over and over, is the discord and
fragmentation the Ethiopian violence has sown right here in Minnesota,
at both a political and family level.
At the political level, instead of promoting unity among the Minnesota
Anuak, the December 13 massacre has had the opposite effect.
Faced with the possible genocide of their tiny tribe, which numbers only
100,000 remaining members, some Anuak in Minnesota have said that raising
money to buy guns to fight the Ethiopian army is the best response.
Others have dismissed that option as suicidal, and focused on raising
relief money instead. Yet another group has argued that lobbying elected
officials in the U.S., which is by far the largest source of aid funds
to Ethiopia, is the Anuak’s best hope for ending Ethiopia’s
ethnic cleansing of their tribe.
Since December 13, four Anuak men in Minnesota have emerged as leaders
of four separate relief groups. Each has his own constituency, works
with his own group of American friends and sponsors, and favors one or
another relief strategy. Two of these leaders don’t speak with
each other; a third is exceptionally fluent in English but is considered
aloof by most Anuak; and a fourth is widely respected but for personal
reasons keeps a low profile.
“Anuak tend to be from specific regions, such as villages by one river
or another in Ethiopia,” explained Okony Cham,
an Ethiopian Anuak who graduated this spring from
Mankato State University. He had been
invited to the women’s meeting as the videographer. “Even
in the U.S., Anuak who come from one region in Ethiopia
follow the leaders from other regions.”
In Anuak history, threats from tribal enemies either in Sudan or Ethiopia
have mobilized Anuak in different villages to unite. This is happening
now under the Ethiopian army’s assault.
But this time, a unified Anuak response in Ethiopia is especially hard
to muster because so many of the tribe's leaders fled the country in
the 1990s, especially to Minnesota, which is home to the world’s
largest Anuak refugee population.
The rapings and killings of Anuak that began on December 13 and continue
to this day, has also deeply divided many Anuak families in Minnesota
and elsewhere throughout the U.S., the Anuak women said last weekend.
They swapped tearful stories of coping with divorce, debts, alcoholism,
and children in trouble at school and with police – all of which
increased sharply after December 13, 2003.
Kicking the Dog
One woman said her husband took to gambling at a Shakopee
casino and wrecked their family. Another woman described
making endless three-hour
car rides to and from a courthouse in another county,
to act as a translator for a troubled Anuak boy who was constantly
in trouble with the law.
Rising from their folding chairs to address the
group, the Anuak women spoke in long emotional
gulps, again and again tracing their families’ problems
to feelings of rage at the Ethiopian government and army.
Yet having no means to directly express their rage
at the actual perpetrators in Ethiopia, the rage
is aimed instead at those nearest them, their families.
“It’s like kicking the dog when in reality you are mad at your boss,” said
Ariet Oman, who had flown to the Minneapolis meeting
“We need to support each other as a sisterhood,” she said. “Not
just donating money, but doing whatever we can.
Just go knock on your sister’s door. We can be there emotionally. Give
your shoulder to cry on.”
Akuthi Okoth stressed the importance of remembering
that the name Anuak means “sharing” and that hospitality was a cornerstone of
“Let’s not just have an Anuak sisterhood, but let’s have American
sisters, African sisters, all sisters. And let’s
remember there are a lot of people suffering, not
just the Anuak people. So let’s
try to help them too. Let’s expand our kindness
to them too. Let’s
try to support them too.”
Several Anuak men had been invited to the meeting
and made speeches.
Lero Odala, who recently moved to Mankato with
his family from Boston, said that Anuak men in
the U.S. are looking to Anuak women for a good
“Women can make men more attentive to their responsibilities,” he
said. “We men, who are afraid and incapable
of uniting, are asking you to lead us to victory.”
Akway Cham, another male guest, advised Anuak women “to be independent
of men because you have your own gifts from God. Women know love better
Warajo Ojulu, a tall Anuak man wearing a gold robe
with an embroidered map of Ethiopia on the front,
read a poem of appreciation to the women.
“Mom is the one who carries us for nine months, and then cares for us
for many years,” his poem read. “Mom
is not someone we can compare to anyone else, because
she is the root of everything. Mothers
have to unite for the future of their children,
and for their children’s
lives after they pass away. Children can see a
bright future from what their mothers started.”
Ariet Oman’s eyes were glistening when she heard these words, and
Akuthi Okoth stood up and said: “To hear a poem written by a man
that endorses the mother’s love, that means so much to us. Let’s
take that from here.”
Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report