In South Sudan in 2008, an eleven-year-old girl named Nya walks through a hot, dry environment. She knows that she needs to move quickly.
Nya is one of the book’s two main characters. Like many of the other characters, she has to work exceptionally hard to survive, in spite of the fact that she’s only a child.
In South Sudan in 1985, an eleven-year-old boy named Salva sits in class, while his teacher drones on about “the Arabic language.” Salva speaks the language of the Dinka tribe, but in school he learns Arabic, the official language of Sudan. Salva is lucky to be able to go to school. His father is successful, and works as a village judge. Salva’s three brothers go to school, but his two sisters don’t—instead, they stay home and learn “how to keep house.”
The story jumps 23 years backwards in time to introduce Salva, the book’s other protagonist, and situate his life within Sudan’s historical timeline. In the mid-‘80s, civil war broke out in Sudan between the North Sudanese government (who mandated that Arabic be the official language of Sudan and Islam the official religion) and the South Sudanese rebels. The passage also emphasizes the strict gender roles in Sudanese society: women aren’t educated, and are expected to stay within the domestic sphere.
Salva and his brothers spend much of their time herding cattle. The older they get, the more cattle they’re responsible for. The brothers also like practicing archery by shooting at birds. They know how to build a fire and roast small animals.
Despite being very young, Salva has a lot of responsibilities. Largely because he lives in an impoverished country, Salva must do his part to help support his family.
Back in the classroom, Salva feels hungry. He imagines going home and drinking a bowl of fresh milk. Suddenly, a loud noise fills the classroom—the sound of gunfire. The teacher yells for the students to get down, but then orders them to run into the nearest bushes. The teacher insists that the students not try to run home—the people firing guns are probably headed for villages.
The passage depicts the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of a young child. Salva is understandably confused—and in his confusion, he naturally wants to be with his parents, even though his teacher urges him to run away from his village.
For two years, there’s been a war in Sudan. There are rebels in the south, fighting against the government in the north. Salva doesn’t know much about these rebels, but he knows they don’t want to practice Islam. Terrified, Salva runs out of the classroom, toward the bushes and away from his home.