When I first arrived on campus of the Yei Vocational Training Center, I found that my simple home was nestled in the back corner. At that time, the campus was filled with young men taking courses in mechanics and carpentry. Their dorms are located at the front of campus, not far from the make-shift soccer field that they spend the evenings running up and down. My nearest neighbor was a gentleman named Patrick. Patrick teaches mechanics and generally keeps to himself. He has a girlfriend with a beautiful singing voice who often comes by on the weekends. Without the barrier of glass windows, her singing, along with the sounds of the soccer field and the children playing on the other side of the back fence, filled my house in the evenings. At the end of the day, it was wonderful to be able to retreat to solitude accompanied with sounds of joyful life; it made my place feel homey and comfortable.
Then things changed. As I sat at my table on Saturday afternoon two weeks ago, I watched a group of the young men carry two bed frames past my window and towards the room across the way. As any good and nosey neighbor would do, I put on my shoes and made my way over to the room to find out what was going on. The manager explained that there would be a catering course starting on Tuesday and sometime in the next few days, twenty-eight women would be arriving on campus. They were preparing rooms for their arrival. To be honest, I was more than giddy with the thought that I would no longer be the only female living on campus (even though I knew I would still be the only foreigner). When the new students arrived I greeted them and was glad to realize that I would have many new people to help me learn Arabic! My little corner of the campus was alive with people moving about to gather water, wash their laundry, and visit with one another. In a funny sort of way, it felt nice to be the one watching rather than the one being watched.
On the second or third day that they were here, a young woman named Emoya got brave. She came to my door, called my name, and as she stepped over my threshold she gestured to her eyes and walked right into my living room. At that moment, I looked at my ‘simple’ home with fresh eyes. As she slowly sat down on the couch, I could see her noticing every detail of my house: the computer, the books, the refrigerator, the kitchen. I even saw her lean back so that she could see into my bedroom. I wanted to melt. Although I wasn’t exactly sure where she was staying, I knew that there were currently two women, two babies, and a teenager staying in the small room that Angie had resided in while she was here. I was sure that Emoya was in a similar room. She doesn’t speak much English, but was able to ask if I lived alone and I was forced to admit that this big place was all for me. Up until this point, I had been enjoying a swift internet connection and a good Facebook chat with my sister, Susan. Emoya sat there in awe and I wished my house would shrink and all this stuff would disappear. I was rather put off, but stopped chatting with my sister and, because of our different languages, we sat in silence. After what seemed like ages of discomfort, another young woman walked by my see-right-in windows and called for Emoya. I didn’t understand her response because it was in Arabic, but something tells me that if she had been speaking English I would have heard her say: “You’ve got to come check this place out! It’s crazy how much stuff this woman has!” I heard the screen door open and slam closed, and in walked my neighbor, Nancy, carrying her baby. The entrance was the same and after a thorough look around, she took a seat as well. She gave me a thumbs-up and called out to her roommate, Sandy. In less than a minute Sandy, her baby, and Rosaline were all sitting in my living room. By this time I had given up on trying to divert their attention from my things and instead closed my computer, offered them water (as any decent South Sudanese person would do), and racked my brain for a way to start a conversation.
From that meeting on, my house has no longer been a fortress of solitude. Several times a day, someone will walk by and shout my name, having seen me through the open curtains. A young woman will stand at my kitchen window, point to the sill and say “Give me a lemon.” Although I know that her native language isn’t a polite one and the words for “please” and “may I” don’t exist, my gut reaction to this seeming demand is never a good one. Margret the teenager has made a game of sneaking into my house (even with a baby on her back) and seeing how long she can stand behind me before I see her and squeal with fright! She’ll then plop down at my table and make herself at home.
I was sure my limit for being welcoming was reached at the end of the first week the new students were here. It was after 9:30 and I had locked my doors and was just shutting down my computer when I heard Margret call from outside my front door: “Mama Eliza, moya!” I sighed deeply, knowing that she wanted water, but wondering why in the world she couldn’t get it from the borehole not ten steps from where she was standing. I had observed that the two ladies she was staying with (one of which is her sister) tend to send her on errands, and figured this was another one of those times. I unlocked the door, invited her in, filled the two cups she handed me with filtered water, smiled, and refrained from asking her why she needed MY water. “Shukran, Eliza (Thank you, Elizabeth)” she said quietly and bowed slightly as she took the cups from me. With that, my heart changed.
It’s been a real challenge to put aside my lens of American culture and look at the actions of these women without it. I have been denying my desire to close my curtains and smiling and waving when the women walk by and even stop what I’m working on and sit with them when they ask me to. I have refrained from hiding all of my lemons under the counter and often offer them before they’re asked for (and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m also trying to teach them to say “May I have…” rather than “give me”). I find myself smiling when Margret ‘Mama’s me, seeing it as an honor to be able to help take care of this little girl who spends her days washing clothes and taking care of the two babies. I am coming to understand that these women aren’t looking to take what I have, but they are offering me what I don’t have: a community. They are inviting me to be a part of the giving and taking, the afternoons spent together laughing, and the responsibility of looking out for one another. What they really want from me is a relationship. If that isn’t the work of Christ, I don’t know what is!