He says education is important for most of them. "There are a lot of us at the community college right now. But at the university level, I think in San Diego there are five of us. Two of us are mostly finishing this year. Me and Daniel [Daniel Akech James, not living in the house], who's at USD. He is majoring in math and philosophy. And I have just physical chemistry left. But all of us, me, Mamer, Nicodemus, and Isaac will be graduating this summer. They'll have B.A.s. I will have my B.S."
You have to wonder how strange this consumer, Western, citified life must be for them. But they seem to have got it down with hardly a hiccup. They've mastered everything from driving the freeways, to handling shopping palaces like Wal-Mart, to credit cards, to cell phones, to the "Hey, dude!" culture and California's brasher, faster way of living.
And if their distinctive height, accent, and regal bearing make it hard to meld completely with the crowd, that's a coin with two sides. Jacob says they are seen as different from African Americans. "I don't know what is behind it. But perhaps it's knowing that I don't have 200 years of bad history with [white America] burning within me. I think because I'm from somewhere [strange], they put on their best face. It'll be 'Oh what is Sudan like? What is going on there? What do you people enjoy doing?' And 'What is the culture like?' "
I thought we'd launch straight into the terrible times during their famous "forced march" across Sudan to Ethiopia, and then down to Kenya. Instead, we're all seduced by thoughts of life before, when it was just family, animals, clan, river, seasons.
If you envisage Isaac and Jacob and Nicodemus and Mamer, in their pre-Coronado life, as belonging to a tall, pastoral people who live in conical huts on savannas filled with gazelles and lions and hyenas, you wouldn't be far off the mark. They lived in the valley that competes with the Great Rift as the place where man first evolved, where the legendary White Nile oozes into the world's mightiest papyrus swamp, the Sudd, where, till recently, life hadn't changed in millennia.
"My duty as a young boy was to take care of the calves, the young ones," says Nicodemus. "My dad and my older brother would take care of the cattle. Because there were, like, wild animals, especially lions, and it's very hard for a kid to watch out for those. The older people are the ones responsible for protecting the cows from being eaten. If they see a lion, they chase it out. And if the lion got lucky to kill one of the cattle, the whole village will go after it, hunt it down, and kill it if they can. Because they know it will come back.
"My village was on the other side of a big canal diverting the Nile," Nicodemus continues. "And there were a lot of trees, wild animals, and at night you could hear all kinds of animals. The lions go, like, 'Whoo-whoo. Hu -- hu hu hu hu hu hu hu.' "
He does a perfect imitation of a lion, going from a long G down to C like a foghorn, then trailing off in a series of grunts. Everybody cracks up.
"And the hyenas will go, 'Wooo-whoop! Woo woo-oo!'" Nico says.
"That's a good sound, Nicodemus!" Jacob says. "We'd scare them away by going, 'Woo -- whoop!' back."
Everybody laughs again, that infectious clicky laugh.
"Even at the age of six, you had to learn the name of each cow," says Jacob. "You never count your cows, but our family probably had 500. Maybe 300. Like, one might be named 'Adoldit,' after the name of our village. If it was red we'd call it 'Alual.' If it's named after a cattle camp, like the camp that we have along the Nile, we'd call it 'Amayak.' This is what the men train you to know. The name of each cow, the color of each cow. You had to even know the different strings [ropes] they had to tie them down. Each rope for each cow. If you want to milk a cow, then you just go and call her by name, and she will get up. Then you will go and pass milk [milk her]."
"In summertime we -- us boys and the men -- would walk along the Nile away from the villages, out to, like, total isolation. Only cows, and people who depend only on cows, wild animals and wild food. But we mostly only survive on milk. And the boys and men would cross the Nile so that we could go to pasture. With all the animals. Line by line. Isaac's herd, my herd, Nicodemus's herd. They would tell me, 'It is your turn.' Then I would jump in the Nile and call one of my cows, the most experienced cow in the herd. You first will go into the water. Then the leader cow will jump in. Then your herds of cattle will follow. But you'd have to watch for crocodiles. They sometimes attack. So in the beginning of January, we'd cross the Nile to the other side, to the west side, and spend the whole summer there: January, February, March. At the end of March, the beginning of April, the rain starts. So we cross the Nile again, coming back home, because when it starts raining, the Nile gets flooded. We get plenty of water at the village. So we recross and come back to the village, and you start farming. You start growing crops in April, May. Then June, July, August, September, October you start harvesting. We grow sorghum, we grow corn, we grow beans, we grow ground nuts [peanuts]."
The kids didn't have to help in the gardens. "Dad and Mum [he says "mum," in the English way] would wake up at 5:00 in the morning, go and start planting until...10:00. At 10:00, then, my mum would come back home and cook, and my dad would remain in the garden cultivating. And around 12 or 12:30, we would come and have lunch and take a break for a while. Then around 2:00, he would go back to the garden. They would both go back to the garden and stay cultivating till around 5:00. Then my mum would come back to cook, and my dad would remain gone till about 6:30."