Saturday, December 11, 2010
Postscript: South Sudan
Juba is a busy port on the banks of the White Nile, located at the river's southernmost navigable point in Sudan. During the dry season, it is a bustling place of shimmering heat and swirling dust. Round mud tukels, iron-sheeted lean-to's and a few remaining colonial (English) era buildings are being rapidly replaced by square cement shops and startling glass-and-steel offices. Street vendors line the congested marketplace, and returning residents fill Jubatown. Bus- and barge-loads of people from IDP camps are also arriving. Everyone queues patiently at official tent-sites cordoned off by red-and-white striped tape. It is the final week for the Sudanese to register to vote before the January 9th Referendum. Meanwhile, convoys of white Land Rovers, ubiquitous symbols of western aid and oversight, appear and disappear like mirages out of the clouds of their own dust.
Sudan is a huge country, approximately the size of the entire eastern United States. (Kenya, by comparison, is approximately the size of Texas. Yet each country is home to an estimated 40 million people.) Burgeoning Juba, in southern Sudan, may be a small town compared to Khartoum, its sky-scrapered counterpart in the north, but it is still the regional hub of commerce and politics. There is no way that one of even my most lugubrious "postcripts" could justly describe any place or its people. Do read Robin's beautiful blog (robin-mission.blogspot.com) for a full picture of her life here. I can only share glimpses of my week -- including a lovely lunch on the Nile! -- as her grateful guest.
Travel to Juba, en route to Boston, was an experience unto itself, from the moment I checked in at Nairobi's airport to the moment we landed in southern Sudan. An authoritative ticket agent at the Jetlink counter introduced me to Sister Mary Amorajok and promptly charged me with shepherding her through Kenya's International Departures, onto the plane and off it in Sudan.
Sister Mary identified herself as a Dinka nurse and an ECS (Episcopal Church of Sudan) priest. Very tall, very thin and frankly fragile, her age alone commanded respect. She was further distinguished by her clerical collar, bright blue shirt and personal demeanor. With slender fluttering arms outstretched, Sister Mary blessed everyone and everything in sight. She was grateful to be alive and returning to workat Jonglei Hospital after her own extensive medical care in Kenya.
In spite of some residual unsteadiness, Sister Mary maintained great dignity as she negotiated her first-ever escalator ride with a large pocketbook in one hand and a twine-tied carton in the other. She was understandably anxious, however, about being plunked in a plastic chair and essentially deserted after I offered (in clumsy sign language) to get her a Coke. When she heard an announcement for a departing Juba flight -- although it was not ours -- Sister Mary panicked. By the time I had returned with two sodas, she had bolted and disappeared into the crowd.
Cokes in hand and and carry-ons in tow, I raced toward the announced gate, praying that my own short legs might carry me fast enough to find her. Fortunately, Sister Mary had stopped to rest; even bent over a baggage cart, she still towered over almost everyone in the airport. "My girl!" she beamed when she saw me. We were inseparable for the rest of the trip. I'm not sure which of us was more relieved when her grandson met her (and Robin welcomed me) in southern Sudan.
The Juba airport is strangely reminiscent of its Vineyard counterpart, half a world away. Long and low, but not as new (no presidential retreat here -- yet), the building stretches out adjacent to its recently-extended tarmac. A few of the city's streets, most of them unnamed, have also now been paved. But Juba is a mini-metropolis, and larger-than-usual crowds are here, both because schools are closed for the holidays and because of the historic opportunity to register to vote. Joyous parades and rallies were held on Thursday to celebrate the close of that largely peaceful, month-long process.
One of our fellow plane passengers was a young mother traveling home to Yei from Uganda. Her excited three-year-old was looking forward to meeting his grandparents for the first time. She was looking forward to an opportunity to vote "for separation," as she shyly informed me. Another passenger was a well-dressed Kenyan traveling to Juba for her monthly appointment with a Chinese herbalist; China has an ever-increasing presence on the continent. A few days later, at the same airport, we "welcomed home" Dr. Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop, Primate of Sudan and Bishop of Juba, and his entourage. They had been in Khartoum, on travel permits that are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, for the consecration of a bishop in the north. Robin's housemate, Rebecca, is the international coordinator for His Grace.
On Saturday, we were kindly invited to brunch with MAF/Mission Aviation Fellowship and SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translator associates. Most of them plan to be out of the country for the Christmas holidays, well past the referendum vote. Robin will remain in Juba. The Episcopal Church of Sudan has worked hard to promote a peaceful referendum vote, reminding everyone on billboards and in homilies to "trust and obey." (Note: some also send the Exodus message of "Let my people go.") A nearby mosque's daily call to prayer awakened me on Sunday, and Al Jazeera's TV cameramen appeared, unannounced, to film the 8 AM service at the ECS cathedral. We hope, pray and, yes, trust that the overarching message of peace and justice will reach all of Sudan's viewing (and non-viewing) public during the course of this month and in the years to come.
Robin hosted an impromptu coffee hour at her house in the church compound after the early service. A lively gathering of Swiss, Americans, and Brits working for the church and various NGO's, it also included a trio of volunteers from England who had shown up at our door the day prior. Jerry, Jason and Conrad were en route home. They had been building school desks and benches for a month in rural Sudan, and they offered to do some carpentry in exchange for a safe place to sleep before flying back to London. After a night's rest at the now-vacant Bishop Gwynne College on the ECS compound, they returned and repaired the broken lock on Robin's and Rebecca's front door.
Cathy, the director of Juba's "Confident Children out of Conflict" center, was also invited for coffee, but "her" girls had met her at church, so she needed to leave to prepare breakfast for them at the site. We joined them later at the CCC, where Robin and Rebecca are frequent volunteers, and spent the afternoon with about a dozen girls, ages 8-16. Street children, all, they share horrific stories of abuse and survival. Juba is a "boom town," as Robin says, but forty years of civil war have taken a traumatic toll on its people, especially on its children.
"Sunday," a bright-eyed girl with a recently-repaired cleft palate, has become especially dear to the volunteers. Abandoned months ago in a remote village by her parents, she walked 52 miles from Terakeka, alone, to find them in Juba. She was rejected once again, even after the corrective surgery that Sunday had hoped, in vain, might make her acceptable in their sight. She has become a frequent visitor at the ECS compound. (See her photo below with Robin, Rebecca, and missioner neighbor Larry.) A highlight of our week was teaching her "Away in the Manger" in English. The CCC girls will be singing at the cathedral's Service of Lessons and Carols.
It was a gift to accompany Robin, mid-week, on an agricultural site visit to Panyikwara, not far from the Ugandan border. Three hours away by very bumpy, but apparently much-improved, road, it is an oasis of green in a brown land and dry season. This now-blossoming community (also called Abara) in Magwi was literally wiped out over the course of 40 years of civil war by deadly, sweeping strikes of both the LRA and SPLM. Any surviving residents were forced to flee to even more rural areas or to IDP camps in neighboring countries.
Two years ago, at the end of a growing season, USAID "repatriated" people to the region. Each adult was given a hoe, a shovel, a pail and some seeds. Tukels/mud-and-thatch huts were built, and land and lives were reclaimed. Although farming was once their "heritage," however, this whole new generation needed to learn to grow crops, work in community and create small agri-businesses in order to survive.
With vision (the archbishop's, in great part), support (Robin's, in great part) and hard work (by the people of Panyikwara, in every way) trees were cut, land was tilled and crops were planted. Where once only scrub forest existed, sorghum, sim-sim (sesame) and families now thrive.
As honored visitors, we were invited to sit under a large shade tree with the village elders. After polite conversation and with their assistance, Robin composed two formal letters on her laptop, then stamped and printed them (via battery) for local signatures. The letters, requisite filings for land usage, were promptly hand-carried on foot to the sub-district officials for approval.
Also as honored visitors, while the women worked and children played, we were fed two generous and delicious dinners within an hour. One was smoked wart hog, the other a more traditional beef; both were delicious and complemented by a mound of maize meal.
Food accompanies relationship in almost every part of the world. The mutuality of the relationship under that big shade tree in Panyikwara was clearly God's work, as well as (wo)man's. It was a joy to witness the progress made in just two short years there, and it was a very special treat to meet "Robinsida," the little namesake of Robin Denney.
Throughout our travels, I've read, prayed and loved. This has been a blessed time of transition for me, from the grief of goodbyes to the joy of hellos. In just one week, I've seen only a small part of a very different country, and I've met only a few of its very welcoming people. But there are powerful parallels of hope between Sudan, where violence has devastated much of the country for two generations, and Kenya, where HIV/AIDS has done the same.
Listening to Morning Prayer in Arabic and to evening Christmas carols in English (in 100-degree heat with people of many cultures but one faith) already seems perfectly normal. Ours are prayers and carols of hope in a season of hope. It is difficult to imagine that in only a few days, I'll be walking in muk-luks on Martha's Vineyard, rather than in flip-flops in East Africa. But I'll be singing the same songs, however off-key...
There is solidarity in journey and in song. Some call it pilgrimage. I am comforted by the knowledge that while I am going home, people in Sudan and in Kenya are also going home. In my bags are token gifts. On their heads are bundles of food. We will all be celebrating Christmas with family and friends.
Emmah, for one, will leave Maseno on Monday to travel several hours north. There she will prepare her family home for the holidays by smearing the floor with a fresh layer of cow dung ("decorated" with scrolled flowers and seasonal stars) to protect against jiggers; gather with relatives who will have also come from great distances; and cook a feast for them on a holiday fire built over three smooth stones.
My travel time will be much longer, and my preparations will be much simpler. But on Christmas Eve Emmah will attend an outdoor prayer vigil in her rural African parish while I attend midnight mass at my rural North American church. We will be continents apart, but our lives (and the lives of our families, friends and neighbors) have been forever touched and changed. We now share the journey -- and "walk one another Home" -- with song and prayer, with love and hope.
Posted by Dianne, Dee, Mom, Granny at 2:00 PM