A Brief Moment with the King, Adongo Agada Akway Cham.
By Elly Wamari
A day with the kings of Sudan
With a cigarette between two long fingers that maintain closeness to his dark lips, and an indifferent expression on his face, Adongo Agada Akawi Cham’s posture by the poolside tables of Boulevard Hotel in Nairobi present him as an ordinary guest. The three women conversing at a table nearby would probably consider it a joke if they were to be let into the fact that the lone man tensely puffing away cigarette smoke in their vicinity was a royalty.
Who would blame them? Adongo comes across as a very ordinary person. Not even the three-piece suit he has on would betray his position. The suit is an everyday cut.
But he is King of the Anyuak people of South Sudan. There, he is fully addressed as King Adongo Agada Akwai Cham. He would hardly pass unnoticed in Anyuak country, unlike at Boulevard hotel.
Ideally, his territory spreads into Ethiopia. One thing worries him lately, which explains his rather distant look. His tribesmen who got cut off to the Ethiopian side when the colonial borders were defined, are in trouble.
He now has to worry about the thousands of "displaced people", who recently crossed over to the Sudan side after an armed invasion by an Ethiopian ethnic community they refer to as "highlanders".
Those are matters of his territory, colonial borders notwithstanding. Concerns of the Anyuak people, whether on the Sudan or Ethiopian side, lie within his responsibility as king.
To demonstrate how seriously he holds the matter, he made these worries a point of discussion on August 16 at a diplomat’s home in Nairobi, where he and 13 other Kings, Chiefs and Emirs from South Sudan had a reception as they passed through Kenya on route to a tour of South Africa, Botswana and Ghana.
Inspired by a return to peace in their land, traditional leaders of South Sudan are now consolidating their hitherto disrupted positions. The tour to the three African countries deliberately selected was aimed at studying other traditional royalties and their relations with central governments. And so, as he sits pensively by the Boulevard hotel poolside, King Adongo has just returned from the tour. He gathers his thoughts during a break from a debriefing session they are holding at the hotel in transit to their respective kingdoms and chieftains.
The date is September 3, when he relents to sharing his life as a South Sudanese traditional royalty. As typical of traditional leaders, he has five wives, and tracks of land and cattle as his property. One of his wives just gave birth to his 13th child as he was on the tour. "The Anyuak people have had kingship for centuries," he begins. That opening line betrays his fluency with English.
Several of his fellow traditional leaders are struggling with the language, the other reason he stands out tall among them, apart from his dress code and height.
There’s a little background to that. Before being named king upon his father’s death in 2000, Adongo, now either 47 or 52 (he talks of conflicting information about his date of birth), was living ordinarily in Canada with his family. The war that broke in his country in 1983 had driven him out. He went to Syria, then Cuba, and finally to Canada, where he had considered settling in. Not being the first son, he had at no moment expected to become King. Surprised he was, therefore, when it turned out that it was he whom his father had secretly named the would-be heir of the throne. Ordinarily, his elder brother would have been the choice.
The appointment fell flat on his laps unexpectedly. Suddenly, he was caught between a tough choice — to decline the appointment and continue living in a foreign country, or accept and go back home. "That was a difficult moment for me. Anyway, I finally decided to return to my country. I was then crowned King in 2001."
King Adongo’s authority in Anyuak country can be assessed through the responsibility that comes with his position. He holds the last word on community governance matters, including resolving internecine as well as externally instigated communal disputes. The fact that his traditional territory spreads into Ethiopia complicates things further. He has to obviously consider foreign relations at that level.
The return of peace to the larger country has reawakened interest in the traditional systems that, though were not extinguished during the war, had, in King Adongo’s perception, been threatened. The absence of a unifying body of all traditional leaders to consolidate their interests and relate these with the central government for effective governance to community level, has been an issue of discussion. Traditional leaders want that badly, and so one of King Adongo's latest engagements is to participate in its formation.
It was such interest that sparked the three-nation African tour. South Africa, Botswana and Ghana are examples of countries in which strong traditional governance systems co-exist with the central governments, hence their selection as destinations for the tour.
That trip has now lit up a fire in the various other kings, paramount chiefs, and princes who took part. They now want to establish an association to collectively serve the interests of their respective communities.
In that way, they will have a unifying voice, and perhaps find strength to play a part in resolving the Darfur crisis, for example. And talking of the troubled Darfur region, King Adongo expresses his opinion. "Darfur is considered to be in Northern Sudan. We are in South Sudan, but what is going on there saddens us as southerners. We want peace in that part of Sudan." A conversation thereafter with Paramount Chief Dennis Dar Amallo Kundi, of the Bari people in Juba, yields similar discussion lines. But he keeps emphasising the need for a "rest house" for all chiefs of Juba, where the "high council of chiefs" in the region could also hold decision-making meetings.
A hearty chat with him ends my brief encounter with a section of Sudanese traditional aristocracy. Their humility, however, leave me a little surprised. They are different from the more familiar big-time royalty that comes with significant amounts of sophistication.