“Welcome to the joy and heartbreak of falling in love with Africa”

Steve said this to me as I sat down to lunch this afternoon, my eyes glossy with tears.  He is exactly right- I have experienced so much joy in these last five weeks, but also tremendous heartache.  I have said goodbye to many of my new friends of South Sudan and now am in Kampala, Uganda where several groups have come together to come up with action plans for how to partner with our South Sudanese brothers and sisters.

My tears do not come from feeling sorry for the people of South Sudan, rather from admiration for them.  I cannot comprehend how a group of people who have experienced so much pain can still be so full of hope and joy.

The heavy feeling I am carrying in my heart reminds me much of the feelings I often get while sitting in team meetings at the middle school.  Once a week the principal and counselor will join us for out meeting and fill us in on things that are going on with our students.  We hear stories of students stuck in the middle of their parents’ divorce or students who don’t have food to eat when they leave school or even students who do not have a home to go to.  The worst is when you hear a heartbreaking story about a student and realize that he or she has never even shown signs of dealing with hard times.  Many a tear has been shed in those team meetings and as I sit here today I am filled with the same pain in my heart.

I have come to realize that feeling hurt for people comes in two different forms for me.  One way I hurt for people is when their pain can be spotted immediately.  I feel bad when I see someone who is crying or expressing their hurt in another obvious way.  The other way, however, brings me even greater sorrow.  I have realized that my heart is completely ripped out when I learn that someone is wearing a smile and holding things together outwardly in order to mask the other issues they are facing.  This kind of pain has smacked me in the face many times over here in Sudan.  Let me share with you a few of these stories.

The United Methodist compound in Yei employs three night watchmen who have added so much to my experience here in Sudan.   Their names are Alex, John, and Emmanuel and they do a great job of greeting people at the gate during the day and keeping us safe at night.  No matter what time of day or evening I would arrive home, Alex would stop what he was doing and greet me with a huge smile and a two handed wave. “You are welcome, you are welcome!” he would say with more enthusiasm than I could ever muster.  After I was sufficiently greeted, he would often tell me that my goat missed his mamma and would show me that he was definitely fat enough to make a great meal.  Like the shaman in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ suggested, when Alex smiles you can see that his liver smiles, too.  Alex broke my heart one morning at breakfast when he shared some of his prayer requests with us.  “My heart is heavy and my worried thoughts are very many,” he said.  “My son, Isaac, is still sick with his very rough skin.  I have taken him to the clinic and he has used the tablets that he was given, but still his skin itches him badly.  I do not have money to take him back to the clinic,” he explained.  “And yesterday” he continued, “my daughter was sent home from school because I do not have enough money to pay her school fees.  She cannot return to school until I have given her the money.  So you can understand that my worries are very great.  Please pray for me,” he asked.  As he spoke, I could see the pain in his eyes and my heart broke for him.  Alex is not only a night watchman, but also works at Eden farm.  One day while we were in the field working, he shared with me that he is happy when there is work that needs to be done.  He told me that if there is work, he will do it so that he has money to help his six children.  You see, Alex is not lazy and is not simply looking for a handout (don’t get me wrong, I am sure he would take it if it was offered), but he is striving to find a way to make things better for himself and his family.  Another morning at breakfast his son Isaac sat with us.  Alex had him come to the compound so that Libby and Diantha could take a look at the rash that had not yet gone away.  We were eating and laughing and Alex was explaining to his son that in the US I am a teacher for children about his age.  Alex looked at me and asked “Elizabeth, when you go back to America, will you take Isaac with you?”  I laughed at the absurd suggestion and Alex turned to Isaac and asked him in Kakwa if it would be okay.  I told Alex that I could not take him with me.  “But why, Elizabeth?  Do you not have enough money?”  I couldn’t believe my ears nor the expression on Alex’s face.  He was completely serious! He was asking if I would take his 12 year old son back half way around the world with me and in his mind money was the only possible explanation as to why I couldn’t!  He went on to explain that if Isaac went with me to America he would have many more opportunities for education and he would have a much better life.  “He can return later,” Alex said “after he is grown and has an education.”  My heart broke for many reasons.  I couldn’t believe that Alex had enough faith in me to trust me to raise his son.  Also, I couldn’t believe that he was feeling desperate enough to ask me to take on that responsibility.  Thinking about this dialogue now still brings tears to my eyes.  Please keep Alex and his family in your prayers.

Emmanuel is another one of the dear friends I made while in South Sudan.  He is probably about my age and has a wife and 5 or 6 children.  Like many Sudanese, he struggles to pay school fees for his children and is working hard to make a living.  When I first arrived at the compound, Emmanuel spoke to me very little.  Little by little he began speaking to me more. “Where going?” he would ask as I exited the gate and “You are coming!” he would say when I returned.  One day when I was returning from an early morning run he opened the gate but stood in the doorway and refused to let me pass.  “Give me ten pounds to enter” he said.  I was shocked and the surprise must have shown on my face.  He broke out his crooked smile and said “if you do not pay me, you should walk to America!”  I responded by telling him it would be hard to walk, but maybe I could swim.  At this moment I really began to feel at home in the compound.  I realized that the watchmen were beginning to feel comfortable enough to joke with me and they were definitely not as shy about trying out their English.  That same morning at breakfast, Emmanuel shared that he was also dealing with some problems at home.  One of his relatives had ‘passed out’ (which is their way of saying passed away) and the four children had been sent to live with him in his already full tukle.  You see, when families come on hard times, they often turn to relatives with incomes for help.  In this case it was assumed that because Emmanuel has a job, he should be the one to take in the four extra mouths.  It is cultural practices like this that are hard for us to understand.  Taking in so many extra children is such a burden on families and can often leave them with too little money for their own children.  At the same time, however, if the children were not sent to stay with a relative that is more fortunate, who would to take care of them?  It is quite a dilemma.

There are so many issues like these in the culture that I have a hard time understanding.  At first it is easy to judge and say that their cultural ‘rules’ are dumb, but I have realized that there are often good reasons for the way things are done.  Let me give you another example.  This week we met a young woman named Monica from a village close to the Congo border.  She shared with us that she is 27 years old and has two children.  She told us that her vision was to start a group called “Hope for women.”  Her thought was that the group would come together and talk about issues that they were facing like domestic violence, raising children, and caring for a family.  It was apparent from the way she spoke that she is passionate about this dream.  As we continued to talk, she shared with us that she had been one of the wives of a man in her village.  Several years ago, however, her husband decided the wives were too many and he kicked Monica and her children out.  Monica explained that this is not a rare event.  My heart broke for her and the injustice that she experienced.  She told me later that she knows that God has given her a capable body and that she can take care of her 12- and 8-year-old children on her own.  Later that evening Steve, Diantha and I were talking about this unfortunate cultural practice and Steve made a very good argument for this man’s decision. “Maybe his decision wasn’t as heartless as we are making it out to be,” Steve reasoned.  “We have seen that Monica has the ability to take care of herself and her husband probably saw that, too.  When he was faced with the fact that he could not take care of them all, maybe he calculated that Monica would be the best one to let go because she would be the one that could thrive on her own.”  Steve is always good at offering a fresh perspective.

I feel like I could write three more pages full of stories like this.  In general I have found that although the Sudanese are suffering greatly, the resist the temptation to wear it as a part of their daily wardrobe.  Their pain is often masked by smiles, singing, dancing, laughing and praising.  I cannot put into words how much I admire them for that.  Kennedy, another young man who is fighting to become a good man in such a harsh environment, shared with me that his favorite scripture is Romans 5:3-5.  As he cited the scripture, tears formed in my eyes. He was quoting the exact verses I found myself desperately leaning on several years ago:

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who he has given us.”

I can only dream of having the type of perseverance, character and hope that my Sudanese brothers and sisters have integrated into their daily lives.

One thought on ““Welcome to the joy and heartbreak of falling in love with Africa”

  1. Elizabeth…An incredible entry to read and contemplate. Many thoughts going through my mind as I read. I always believed Africa culture and realities should be taught in middle school. You have just reinforced that in my mind. It is a crime for those in power to avoid it in Ohio curriculum. Love you girl.

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