Life’s choices now her own

Fleeing forced marriage, a young woman secures her future at an MCC partner school

Mary Laat, a former student and now an intern at Loreto Rumbek School in Rumbek, South Sudan. — Loreto Rumbek School Mary Laat, a former student and now an intern at Loreto Rumbek School in Rumbek, South Sudan. — Loreto Rumbek School

For three days and three nights, Mary Laat ran and hid from her own family. The goal of their pursuit? To bring her to the altar to marry a man she didn’t know who’d paid his dowry and expected a wife in return.

Clinging to the upper branches of the tree she was hiding in at night, she says she could hear the hyenas below her, circling, hoping for an easy meal.

It wasn’t until she fell to her knees at the gates of Loreto Rumbek School South Sudan that she shed the tears that were burning within her. She was home now. Finally safe again.

Now 22, Mary uses “Laat” as her ­surname, but for most of her life, she was called “Ding.” Mary and her family are members of the Dinka people of South Sudan. The Dinka are perhaps most famous on the global stage for being the world’s tallest ethnic group. The Wikipedia entry for “Notable ­Dinka” includes seven NBA players and numerous fashion models.

But within the borders of South Sudan, the Dinka are strongly associated with their “cattle camps,” the nomadic family tribes of agro-pastoralists whose social and financial standing is directly tied to the size of their cattle herd.

Mary’s father was the chief of her camp, well-liked by most. Like all Dinka men, when he was a young man, a marriage was arranged between him and Mary’s mother, with a dowry of cattle paid as part of the exchange. In Dinka culture, each daughter in a family is expected to command a respectable dowry of cattle when she comes of marrying age. But firstborn daughters, like Mary, are also expected to recoup the dowry spent on their mother’s marriage.

So, as a reminder of the value she was expected to have for the men of her family, she was called “Ding,” after one of the cows spent on Akuach’s dowry — an emotional weight she was forced to carry and a constant reminder of her place in the social order of the Dinka.

The people of Mary’s tribe are, in her words, considered to be among the least educated people in South Sudan. This stems, at least in part, from the effects of British colonialism, which administratively separated the north and south of Sudan. The economic, political and educational impacts this split created would be major factors in the civil war that ended with South Sudan achieving its independence.

“The Dinka do not support girl’s childhood education, because they feel the only thing a girl is supposed to do is get married,” she said. “That is what they do best.”

In 2016, around when she finished her Primary 7 (an equivalent of seventh grade in the U.S. and Canada), she got her first period, signifying her as a marriable woman in the eyes of the Dinka. She was deeply frustrated, though not necessarily surprised, that her father wanted to keep her back from school and find a suitable suitor for her to be married to.

“You feel dictated with your plans — at any time, anybody can come up and terminate your plans, your goals, whatever you’ve set up for your future,” Mary said. “You feel like you’re being made property, to be given out in time. You feel like less of a human being. You feel like you’ll be sold at any time. You have less stamina to stand by what you want to do.”

With some advice from her mother, she convinced her father that getting her full education would be valuable — in her eyes, for her own well-­being, and in his, to make her a more valuable bride. He reluctantly agreed, and Mary finished Primary 8 before successfully applying to start secondary school at Loreto Rumbek School, a Mennonite Central Committee partner in the area.

Loreto rumbek school, near Rumbek, South Sudan, is made up of a primary school, a girl’s secondary school and a health care facility. A long-serving MCC partner in the country, Loreto is one of the most successful schools in the state. It focuses on creating a supportive environment for all students, particularly the girls of the secondary school.

MCC has supported a variety of programs at Loreto, including school feeding programs, canned meat, dignity kit and school kit distribution, a child vaccination program, greenhouse and garden infrastructure, fruit trees and many others.

When Mary arrived at Loreto, she was shocked. Many of the girls in the years above her seemed so free and happy. The nuns teaching them spoke often to them about understanding their power as women and knowing how to use their voice — in many ways the opposite of what Mary had heard her whole life. Her first year was transformative. Having control of her own life had once felt impossible, but it began to feel like something she was being empowered to do.

Then, in August, she went home for a holiday and everything she was working toward was threatened.

With a weeklong break from school on the calendar, Mary made the 56-mile journey home near the village of Malueth, only to find bad news. Her father had accepted a dowry of cattle from a local man for Mary’s hand in marriage, and she would not be allowed to return to school.

Furious, Mary confronted her father, making it clear she did not want this. Her father said the cattle had been paid and the deal was done.

Mary had no intention of giving up the future she believed she could have. She crafted a plan to get back to Loreto.

She came back to her father, pretending to have a change of heart about the marriage. That bought her a few days. She told her family she was feeling ill, and then, when night fell, she stole out of their encampment into the darkness.

“I moved only at night, and during the day I would climb a tree and hide in it,” Mary said. “I made sure I didn’t pass through anyone else’s property so that no one could tell anyone they’d seen me. If I saw someone on the road ahead, I would go to the bush on the side of the road. I would join a group if no one recognized me.”

For three days and three nights, Mary navigated her way back to ­Loreto, staying out of sight and ­avoiding danger, sometimes narrowly.

“At night I could hear the hyenas making noise, but I did not cry,” she said. “I was very strong. I felt that whatever happens, happens. If a lion eats me, no problem, I did not care. But once I saw the gates of the school, I fell to my knees and started crying.”

Students at Loreto Rumbek School enjoy a meal made with MCC canned turkey.

That was in September 2018. For her safety, Mary didn’t leave the walled grounds of the school until she graduated in 2022. But that didn’t mean her family had given up on trying to find her. Shortly after she returned, a group of her uncles arrived at the school, hoping to catch her where they believed she’d fled.

Mary wasn’t the first girl to experience circumstances like this at Loreto. On first sight of the group, Mary and five other girls in similar situations were ushered into a safe place, and the word was sent out to everyone at ­Loreto: Mary hasn’t been here. She left for holidays, and that was the last we’ve seen of her. Before long, the uncles left.

Mary’s friends rallied a community around her. More than one of her friends’ families made it clear that she was part of their family now. Mary didn’t know it then, but even though she would reconcile with her mother, she would never see her father again.

Much to the surprise of Mary and the Loreto staff, Mary’s mother showed up to the graduation ceremony. But Mary’s thrill of being reunited with her mother was tempered by the shocking news of her father’s death. One of Mary’s uncles had made a power play, seeking the chief’s seat by paying someone a small herd of cattle to assassinate him in his home.

Mourning her father’s death while celebrating her mother’s reconciliation, Mary’s life was fully under her control now. She had only to choose what her next step would be. Loreto had been so pivotal to her freedom that she decided to stay a little longer and signed on to Loreto’s postsecondary school internship.

The program gives young women the chance to participate in every part of Loreto’s operations — the clinic, the kitchen, the classroom and many parts of its administration. Over two years, the interns, all young women, can build a resume of experience far greater than anything else they could do over the same period.

Once graduated from the internship, Mary hopes she’ll be one of the handful of girls Loreto sponsors for a university education in Kenya. She hopes to teach one day at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi.

Jason Dueck

Jason Dueck is a communications specialist for MCC Canada in Winnipeg, Man.

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