As talks to end the 21-year civil war in Sudan neared the climax in 2004, I was among Kenyan journalists who accompanied Dr John Garang de Mabior on a tour as he marketed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Southern Sudan.
Despite being a freedom fighter, liberator, diplomat, iconic figure and architect of the CPA, Dr Garang was friendly and down-to-earth and freely interacted with the common people.
He was also a good orator, intelligent and visionary. Among the areas we visited were New Site near the Kenyan border, Yei, Pandit and Rumbek.
On some of the trips we used cargo planes without seat belts. A large number of heavily armed Sudanese People’s Liberation Army soldiers accompanied us.
Dr Garang easily switched from English to Arabic and to local languages for people to understand him better.
He could address crowds for hours continuously, quoting extensively from the Bible and Koran.
Referred in Saturday’s celebrations as the founder of the nation, Dr Garang was also respected and popular in other parts of Sudan including Khartoum, Darfur and other northern states that I visited.
A historic crowd welcomed him in Khartoum after the signing of the CPA.
As Dr Garang, who was the chairman of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army, alighted from a plane in various places, he was welcomed by several men who pinned a white bull to the ground.
An elderly man then drove a sharp spear into the bull’s neck before the “chairman,” as Dr Garang was popularly known, jumped over the animal followed by his wife, Rebecca, and an army commander, in the din of traditional tunes.
The bull would then be dragged away for slaughter in this Sudanese ritual of welcoming home a prominent person.
The slaughter of bulls was a sign of leaving everything, good or bad, that might have befallen a person behind, and crossing peacefully into a new life. It also signified respect for an important person.
Known as Tern (the shedding of blood), the ritual is conducted for a person who has stayed away from home for long. The meat is eaten, but the person who jumps over it does not eat it.
The bull is usually slaughtered by the oldest person in the community. A white bull is preferred, because it symbolises peace and good health among Sudan’s pastoral communities.
A black bull cannot be slaughtered as black signifies a bad omen. In fact, Dr Garang’s nickname, de Mabior, means a white bull in his Dinka community.