Amos Ajak Garang, Police colonel, freedom fighter and famous composer and singer of popular love songs and revolution has died after bravely battling cancer of the throat for a very long time.
Amos Ajak began singing in the late 1950s as a schoolboy at Abwong Elementary School. Abwong to the east of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile State. Ajak who was born to peasant parents at Pawuoi village in what is today Twi County (Twic East is a misnomer), showed interest in music. That was the time of religious revival among when Ngok Dinka of today’s Bailiet County, when hymn singing was part of that spiritual awakening. Ajak was also a self-taught drummer.
Christian believers of whom some were affiliated to the Presbyterian Church were composing hymns in the vernacular as well as making rendition of martials in which words had to be given biblical terms instead of their original secular lyrics. One of these was “Bäny-dïït de Pinynhom Cɔk Wo Ɣer”, literally, Lord of the World Make Us White [clean].
Today when the SPLA band plays this march, Dinka Christians with no knowledge of the origin of the tune sing it in Dinka, convinced that it is their own chorus that has been adapted by the army. There is a coincidence in this as will be seen later in this appreciation since late Amos Ajak later became choirmaster of the SPLA Band.
I met Amos Ajak at Atar Intermediate School in 1961 when he was two years my senior. By age, Ajak was much older, probably by seven years.
A quiet, tall and charming youth, nobody remembers having seen or heard Amos Ajak getting into altercation with fellow students or in trouble with school authorities. He was, however, a common figure on school playgrounds as he participated in football, volleyball and Ping Pong as table tennis is known.
Ajak later added Arabic music of Northern Sudanese to his Church-based hymn-singing. He imitated the popular singers of the day, among them Ibrahim Awad, one of the national stars in those days. By lucky coincidence, when the military governor Upper Nile was going by boat up the Nile to open a new hospital in Bentiu in 1961, decided to have a stopover at Atar- 25 miles away from Malakal the provincial capital- where he and his entourage included Ibrahim Awad, disembarked and went straight to the school hall. The young tall, slim and good-looking entertainer offered just one song- a hit at the time- to the students in the company of the headmaster and his teaching staff. The song was “Habibi Janani”- Arabic for “my lover has made me mad [with love”). The free entertainment by the young and popular performer was over. In less half an hour the governor and company were gone to continue their voyage to Adok and then from there by land to Bentiu.
Ibrahim Awad was one the Northern Sudanese singers whose songs Amos Ajak loved to perform to entertain fellow students.
Good at Arabic, both spoken and written, Amos Ajak who was endowed with a melodious voice, would sometimes spend his leisure time singing while seated on the edge of the sandy quay along the White Nile, not far from the school compound. We used the dockside for swimming early mornings and late afternoons when the heat of the day was gradually dissipating.
The turbulent Sixties
The early 1960s were times of political turbulence in the three Southern Provinces of Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria and Upper Nile. This was the period of the resurgence of the rebellion against the government in Khartoum. Following the takeover of power by the military under General Ibrahim Abboud in 1958, the repressive policies of his regime against the South directly helped rekindle the nationalistic zeal in the then dormant former participants in the Torit mutiny of August 18, 1955 to organise and conduct a guerrilla warfare.
This development that was largely confined to Equatoria Province soon gradually began to engulf the entire Southern Sudan where defections by policemen, civil servants and students helped to swell the ranks of the new insurgency.
After every strike, which were mostly politically motivated, a number of students would be reported missing; they had gone over to the rebels who later adopted the name of Anya Nya, or the snake venom in the Madi language. The most memorable of all those strikes was the 1960 student protests at the government’s decision to turn Sunday, then a day of worship and rest in the South, to a working day, and Friday, the Islamic Sabbath, was officially declared as a day of rest, instead.
In 1962 students all over Southern Sudan and in what was called English pattern (as opposed to “national” schools where Arabic was a medium of instruction) went on strike. After the reopening of schools, a couple of months later that year, a sizeable number of students, especially those aged 16 and above had found their way into the bushes of Southern Sudan to train as guerrilla warriors. Rumbek led the rest of the students in that nationalistic agitation. These young men were to form the nucleus of Anya Nya fighters or scouts. Amos Ajak was one of the students who did not return to school: he had joined the freedom fighters as the rebels were known to their supporters.
But not all who voted with their feet were able to carry guns: weapons were in short supply, and so were food, medicine and clothing. It was decided by the rebel leadership that very young volunteers had to be assigned some roles to play in the war of liberation. Some of those youths were trained as scouts or agents, who were secretly sent to towns to spy on government’s positions and installations, list and keep tabs on the names of Southern Sudanese collaborators with security agents in the Government of Sudan.
In later years, scouts worked closely with chiefs and other traditional leaders to organise food supplies for the fighters or to help in collection of funds that were taken to the Congo for buying weapons from the defeated Simba rebels. The scouts also worked closely with the secret internal cells and assisted nationalists intending to defect to the fighters. Amos Ajak was one of the active scouts in Bor home district, Bor, after returning from the border between Southern Sudan and the Congo, where he had received military training of sorts.
In mid- 1960s the Anya Nya leadership decided that formal education was so important as part of the struggle that some students were allowed to resume schooling.
Amos Ajak returned to town, but unlike most of his comrades, he decided to work in the North where he got a job in a factory. It is to be recalled that some workers contributed parts of their wages for supporting the rebels and the struggle by means collecting money for buying medicine and facilitating couriers. Ajak and his colleagues who worked in the civil service financed the armed struggle via the underground cells in Northern cities, where there was little fear of government spies to uncover their networks and anti-State activities; the bulk of government’s security personnel were concentrated in urban centres of Southern Sudan. The rural population also contributed food and money for the rebels to acquire weapons. At a later stage in the second half of the 1960s young peasants sold some of the livestock, and travelled to the Congo to acquire weapons; some of them underwent military training with Anya Nya, and later participated in pitched battles as well as ambushes, guerrillas’ favourite method.
While in Khartoum North where he worked, Amos Ajak continued his singing as a hobby, receiving no pay for his labour. It was at that time that he composed his famous song “Abängda Yïn Anhiaar”, which became an instant hit when Omdurman Radio, the State broadcaster, began to play it. The lyrics were so moving that some of the listeners were reported to weep when it was being played. With music arranged and supplied by the station orchestra, the song was rated one of the best in languages other than Arabic. Among Ajak became the darling of the youth of both gender.
A rough translation of the name of the song in Dinka goes “I love you our beloved baby”. In fact, “abäng” is a word without a single nearest equivalent in English as the word stands for what one would call typical classical Dinka and very poetical. Without the possessive “da” (our), “abäng” means young, pure, innocent, beloved, pristine, ethereal, seedling, babe, among many others. Paradoxically, the word gets its clear meaning within the context of mourning. In the past, a mother, for instance, who lost a young child would utter heart-rending wail “Abäng-dï mawoou!” repeatedly. “Dï” is possessive for “my”. In this sense “abäng” symbolises the possible best person, idea or object that could be. For one to refer a sweetheart as abäng was to say she was more than darling or even honey. Singing and poetry in Dinka was getting into a new and unchartered territory, linguistically speaking. Amos Ajak was one of the pioneers in the brave new world of spiced metaphors in lyrics.
From a best man to a suitor
Although Amos Ajak had by then established himself as an accomplished composer and singer, with an electrifying voice, he did not give up his job as a factory worker to become a full time performing artist.
A turning point in his personal life, however, happened in 1968 when his friend Kothia Kuany Mabior Juarwel asked him to be his best man at his wedding to Akeer Gak. The bride had her cousin Duoom Arok Goch as her maid of honour.
Those formal relations later mellowed into a firm love between Amos and Duoom, who in less a year became sweet-hearts, wife and husband. In fact, it appears “Abäng-da Yïn Anhiaar” was a courtship song that predated the marriage of the former best man to the former maid of honour. The couples have five daughters and a son, with their own children at the time of Amos Ajak’ passing.
Amos Ajak the cop
Four years after that wedding an agreement that temporarily ended the first civil war was concluded between the government of Jaafar Nimeiri and the rebels of Southern Sudan Liberation Movement, SSLM, and its military wing, Anya Nya. The accord called the Addis Ababa Agreement, had given the former rebels the right to have 6,000 men to be integrated into the regular forces- Army, Police, Prison Service wardens, and Wildlife Department.
The Anya Nya command kept the lists of their sleepers (intelligence jargon for elements belonging to an enemy group operating clandestinely within the territory of their enemy). Some of these secret agents were taken as officers, non-commissioned officers, (NCOs) and men in the new regular forces of the Republic of Sudan. Amos Ajak Garang was absorbed as a sergeant major in the Police force in Juba. He continued to sing to entertain huge gatherings, and always for free. One of these was when he entertained the President of the High Executive Council, Abel Alier, and accompanying VIPs during the inauguration of new studios for Radio Juba in 1975. On that night of celebration, I had the honour of receiving and escorting the VIPs to their seats, a first for me, and which I exceedingly relished.
Rebel for a second time
When the entire Police force under the command of Colonel Makuei Deng Majuch in Bor, the capital of what was Jonglei Province, rebelled in 1984 to join the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the SPLA, Amos Ajak Garang was with the force that soon was integrated into the SPLA. Those elements soon took part in battles before they had been given refresher guerrilla tactics or general military training. At the time of his defection Amos Ajak was a sergeant major in the police force.
While in the SPLA, Amos Ajak was waging the liberation struggle using his Kalashnikov rifle as well as his creative mind and golden voice to keep the morale of his fellow combatants high with his inspiring and revolutionary songs.
His comrades and the rest of Radio SPLA listeners fondly remember to this day Ajak’s memorable “Kapoeta”, a song he composed in standard Arabic mainly for the consumption of the oppressors in power in Khartoum.
Ajak composed this expressive cry from the heart after the capture of Kapoeta garrison by the SPLA in later 1980s in a battle in which some of his comrades fell. In part, the songster wonders why he- representing every oppressed and marginalised South Sudanese- should be hungry and naked- metaphorically of course- in his homeland which is very rich in everything. “Asma’ Sauti ana fi Medina Kapoeta” (Hear my Voice in Kapoeta Town) in reality this is and will remain one of the odes to the cause of liberation struggle and its justification.
Amos Ajak was not always in good health despite the fact that he had a well built frame. When I met him in Yei after the liberation of that important town a few months earlier in 1997, he was recovering from wounds he sustained after a vehicle he and his colleagues were travelling in had overturned, killing several of them.
During the SPLM-Church dialogue, which resulted in what was later dubbed Kajiko, after the village of that name, and which was the venue of the conference, after which the two bodies endorsed the “Liberation Theology”, I noticed a disturbing trend in the singer: a desire to sing at every interlude. When I privately complained to a mutual friend about what I had observed, he told me that singing was a form of therapy for Ajak. I agreed. That was the last time I saw Amos Ajak Garang.
From that time until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, in 2005, Alternate Commander Amos Ajak Garang was the commander of the SPLA Military Band, a position he used not only as a leader but one for training the personnel of the inchoate military organs of prestige and protocols, all symbols of State in the making. The SPLA Military Band plays our national anthem during State functions.
After the end of the armed conflict in 2005, Amos Ajak was one of the former SPLA who became senior officers in the standing Army of Southern Sudan, and later of sovereign South Sudan. His rank of alternate commander was converted into that of a full colonel. He was later transferred and deployed as a colonel in the Southern Sudan Police Service, where he served until his death.
Ties going back to parents
Late Amos Ajak Garang had several ties with me, some which, sometimes take me to my childhood in rural Southern Sudan. As a former school-mate he was both a colleague and friend. I still remember him as a warm sensitive, kindly human being. During the last war of liberation, we were comrades-in arms. We also had blood ties.
We often used to address each other as “Molën”, an abbreviated Dinka slang for “Mɛnh de Malën” or child of mother’s sister, to translate it literally. His biological mother was not sister to my mother, but his wife Duoom’s mother, Gak Bior Aguer Ajang, was a distant cousin of my mother Nyanluak Bior Aguek. Not only were the two girls- my mother and Ajak’s mothr in law- from Paan-Bior clan related by blood; they too were next door neighbours in the Piom de Wun Aguer village. The pair was dancing-mates according to cultural trend of their time: a pair of girls would dance with a pair of young men; the sets were often close relatives or friends.
Gak’s father, Bior Aguer, known universally within the community by his personality ox nickname of Bäny de Aliap was in charge of the luak (cattle byre) that housed the Kongor Wut (group of clans) totem in the form of a drum called Mayom. The custody of the emblem of the divinity and its shrine was the responsibility of Bior Bäny de Aliap. (Godfrey Lienhardt, the famous anthropologist visited the luak while he was passing through the area in the early 1950s. In his book, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, Prof Lienhardt narrates a short incident about his visit to the luak).
The totem’s abode was known as Luaŋ de Lɔ̈ɔ̈r (Luang de Loor) or the Byre of the Drum. My mother’s name was derived from this building. Nyanluak in some Dinka communities is a name given to a girl born in a luak. My mother was not; she was named after the Luang de Loor in the neighbourhood of her family’s homestead.
Alas, that place and its spiritual symbols have gone, thanks to the work of modern barbarians, who in the moment of their madness turned the Big Houses into ashes in the 1990s. Misguided Christians with very little knowledge of their newly acquired faith and lacking in tolerance of other people’s faiths and their symbols, they destroyed what would qualify for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Unesco, world ‘s heritage sites and objects.
I have learned that late Amos Ajak Garang was going through savage ravages of cancer characterised by constant and relentless excruciating pain and agony to his loved ones. When an end to such a long and painful condition comes and prevails, with no hope of reversal is in sight, the inevitable, although premature and unwanted end, might be welcome, sadly. In the same vein there is bound to be some sort of relief, mixed with deep and sincere sorrow for the loss of such a great person and citizen, who made a difference for the better for their country and its people.
I say: Adieu Molën! and may your memory live on for a very long time to come. You deserve to be missed and remembered by family, comrades-in-arms and all those who yearn for freedom and justice, norms you and your comrades fought for and won. You and fellow freedom fighters fought a good fight and the crown is the independence, which we, including the former turncoats, now enjoy and celebrate.
Colonel Amos Ajak Garang died in Juba in 2013. He was buried at Sherikat, a suburb of Juba on the eastern bank of Supiri as the White Nile is known in Bari. This tribute was published in the Citizen daily newspaper, in Juba the same week he died.