Bigoa Chuol does not know much about how her family fled their home, but she has heard stories of being put in a bucket and carried on the heads of older relatives as they walked away from the bullets.
The South Sudanese poet was born in 1991 on an arduous journey that took her family from a brutal war in the south of what was then Sudan, to safety in Ethiopia then on to Kenya.
“I was born in Addis Ababa and there are stories of us walking to Kenya when I was a very young girl,” says the 28-year-old. “I was with aunties and uncles and cousins and I believe I was quite young then and I was being carried on people's shoulders, their backs and in a bucket.”
Bigoa’s family was eventually resettled to Australia when she was 11. Her early years in Kenya are mostly distant memories but missing out on school and moving on again are stand-out moments.
“I sort of remember it being a struggle and those times we couldn't go to school because we didn't have fees and things like that. Then it just felt like one day, we were getting ready to leave,” she explains.
That’s a reality that has haunted many other South Sudanese children for generations.
"I just had this overwhelming urge to share something."
South Sudan won independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, sparking hope that peace would finally come, but instead two years later it plunged back into war.
With more than 4 million people forced to flee their homes, South Sudan has become Africa’s largest displacement crisis. More than 2.3 million people have crossed into six different countries desperate for safety and 1.8 million more are internally displaced. Some 63 per cent of South Sudan’s refugees are under the age of 18, meaning more than 1.4 million children are struggling with the impacts of being uprooted from home.
Bigoa was fortunate. Resettled to Australia, she went to school, made friends and lived a seemingly normal life.
But something was missing – the feeling of being truly ‘home’.
“I couldn't put my finger on it,” she says. “When you have had the experience of being uprooted and don’t really have sense of being safe and settled, you're not quick to really put your roots in the ground. I don't think I've ever really felt it was home.”
One day, she attended a poetry event for Afro-Australian writers and something happened – a distant sense of belonging began to settle over her.
“I saw myself - complicated and creative and expressing - and I just had this overwhelming urge to share something. I believe I've always had that urge to write,” she explains.
South Sudanese poet reflects on decades of flight and exile - Independence (Linda Muriuki, Videographer, Editor: Arnold Temple/ Poet: Bigoa Chuol / UNMISS)
Bigoa adds that through poetry, she is searching herself and interrogating the conflict between roots and belonging.
“There's a lot of silence around the war and how it's impacted my family and I'm sort of coming to begin to search that out,” she says.
She wrote the poem, ‘Birth Water’ while on a retreat for South Sudanese women writers organized by OXFAM in Uganda. The coming together of different experiences around war in the country that is considered their home, inspired her to further question and produce a piece that could lead others to do the same.
“It explores the experience of being South Sudanese. Having come through as refugees and being quite young, when I think about it, it's almost like you enter a new chaos,” she explains. “You enter a new war that is quite subtle and you don't really get time and space to inquire about where you've come from or why you are where you are.”