Saturday, January 25, 2020

Our “Reality Check”

Twice per week Susan comes to clean our apartment. Susan does not speak English so we are wonderfully obliged to practice and speak the local Juba Arabic with her – Susan has become one of our many, patient and gracious language teachers. Susan is from the Torit area of Eastern Equatoria, and she often walks a long distance to cultivate her fields. In many ways, Susan represents the simplicity of rural life and thinking, yet finds herself transplanted into the urban metropolis of Juba.

Susan in the middle, with Kristi and another
woman also named Susan who used to work in our building  

We sometimes refer to Susan as our “Reality Check” here in South Sudan. Her life belies and represents the suffering of so many, yet "Susan mashi hal,” Susan pushes along. Having given birth to ten children, only a few remain, most having died because of disease or due to the violence and trauma which continues to inflict this land. Last year Susan's sixteen-year-old son was shot and killed in broad daylight at a birthday party. Susan’s grief was immeasurable, and her willingness to forgive divine.

Within our first few months of being here, I was targeted and overtaken by “toronto,” thieves who travel by motorcycle and swipe possessions from unsuspecting pedestrians. I came home feeling victimized. Susan, while not discounting my trauma, said to me, “Bob, do not condemn them for what they have done…have compassion, they are acting out of their own desperation.” On another occasion, Kristi and I bemoaned the fact that rats continued to invade our apartment at night, eating into our bananas and causing general havoc. When we informed Susan about our “rat problem,” she sympathized, but responded with this rejoinder – “Ah, you have rats, that means you have food. You are blessed to have food!” She later told us that in many homes, rats come and nibble at people’s toes at night because there is no food.

Most recently, since we arrived back in Juba almost three weeks ago, we rejoiced to see Susan glowing! After months of melancholy since the death of her son, Susan seemed to have regained a sense of hope and joy. Yet again, the challenges of this country would land themselves square on her shoulders. One day last week Susan confided to Kristi that in the afternoon she would go across town to Jebel to pick up the three children of her late brother and sister-in-law, taking them home to care for, to feed and send to school. The following week Susan would report to me that previously she had taken in another three children from the same brother and that of his first wife after the first wife had died and her brother and his second wife were unwilling to care for them. It seems that HIV/AIDS had wiped out at least two of the parents, leaving behind a retinue of orphans. Susan said when she thinks about the needs of her household, it is too much, she is overwhelmed. "But I put God first," she says smiling, "and have faith that He will provide." 

What can one say when confronted with the life of Susan? What words of comfort or encouragement can one provide? I am left speechless and dumbfounded by Susan’s witness of resilience and faith. Could I endure what Susan has endured and keep going? I do not know. What Kristi and I do know, however, is that Susan is our “Reality Check.” She is our inspiration.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Return home to Juba

We arrived in Juba on Tuesday, exhausted after nearly 24 hours of travel but excited to be back to our adopted home. The heat hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane, and we smiled at the stark contrast from the Illinois winter weather we had left the day before. It felt so familiar, and yet so different and strange!

On the ride home from the airport, Bob chatted in Arabic with our taxi driver. Our Arabic is rather rusty after not using it much for six months, so it feels like digging at the bottom of the closet for the word we are looking for. As I greeted some familiar women this week on the street and wished them ‘Happy New Year’, I said “Ndi mortaah kukumona”, which means “I’m happy to see you”, as long as you are understand my hodgepodge of Tshiluba and Arabic. The woman smiled at my gibberish and returned my greeting.

This week we have been busy trying to get settled again. The day after we arrived we spent the morning at the police station renewing our visas and doing the new alien registration. Another day we filled out forms and compiled documents for our work permits – the paperwork and fees required to live in South Sudan might rival that of our own country. We also have been clearing away the dust in our apartment, shopping for food, trying to get organized, and coping with our bodies that want to sleep at the wrong times. Our allergies immediately responded to the dust, and we have been sneezing and blowing our nose as we get our bodies and habits acclimated again.
Bob organizing our bookshelf to fit on new books

One sign of dry season in Juba is that there are ants everywhere – they are in search of water, so they will instantly materialize on any scrap of food or water available. One morning I opened a new bag of cereal and poured some in bowls. I could see the cereal moving, and realized that it was teeming with ants. I picked out several as they crawled around the bowl, and then asked Bob whether he thought we should eat the cereal with ants, or find something else for breakfast. “Oh, Juba!” was his immediate reply. Despite all the insects that we DID eat in Congo, we had not seen people eat common ants. “Well,” he said pragmatically “They will drown in the milk, right?” I googled “Can you eat ants?”, and the answer came back “Yes, they can be eaten raw or cooked, covered in chocolate or honey, or tossed in a green salad…” So, we plunged in and ate our cereal with ants that morning, trying not to look too closely.

Pastor Angelo was one of our visitors this week

A highlight this week has been reconnecting with colleagues, friends, and shopkeepers. Bob went to buy a few things at one of our neighborhood stores one afternoon, and was quizzed on everyone’s name, offered multiple cups of tea, and of course had sit and catch up on the news with owners. Some friends have spontaneously stopped by, giving us a break from the cleaning and helping us practice the flexibility and hospitality that the South Sudanese excel at. We are excited to re-engage with our work after long conversations with colleagues, catching up on all that has happened while we were gone. And so much has happened! We look forward to sharing more updates soon here on the blog or in newsletters.

Friday, December 13, 2019

So grateful!

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? Psalm 116:10

At the end of November we finished our visits to churches for this year. We reflected on all the ways God has encouraged and blessed us as we have traveled around this year, reconnecting with so many of you who partner with us. We are truly grateful to God and to all the people we encountered along the way.  `Here are a few pictures and specific highlights of things we are grateful for in this season:

1. Safe travel…about 10,000 road miles logged and a few flights. We prayed extra hard on the curves and hills of West Virginia in the driving rain!

2. All the people who expressed an interest in South Sudan and the work of the church there – who asked probing questions and wanted to learn more.

3. Conferences (like New Wilmington Mission Conference, Big Tent, and the Sudan/South Sudan Mission Network), where we reconnected with lots of people we know and had a chance to share more in-depth about our work in South Sudan.

Praying for Rev. Santino, principal of NTC, at the mission network

4. Hospitality – Many people hosted us for the night or for a meal, drove us somewhere or loaned us a car. We appreciate the generosity, and also the connections and conversations those opportunities provided.

5. The gift of reconnecting with friends and families. Seeing people face to face feels so special when it is so rarely possible for us. Relationships that have spanned many years are so refreshing to pick back up on!

6. Answered prayers when we were nervous before speaking, or trying to figure out how to best use the time given us to share.

7. Recovery time – Bob experienced more physical pain with his broken hip than he has ever experienced, and it forced us to cancel lots of plans. We are very grateful for healing and for the time of recovery; we feel like God redeemed the cancelled and rescheduled plans.

8. Good reports from our colleagues in South Sudan. The media team at NTC produced a newsletter without Bob’s monitoring and assistance, and Kristi’s colleagues facilitated a healing and reconciliation workshop in July. The church continues to have a significant role in pushing for peace, and we look forward to returning in July.

9. The seasons! We watched extra-closely this year the leaves changing colors as autumn progressed, noticing deeper colors as we traveled north. Sometimes we just stared in awe at the rainbow of colors in the trees. Of course, a picture can never do it justice! We watched an early winter blizzard in Oregon, and look forward to a little more snow this year.

10. Exploring new places – we had some short-but-sweet days of savoring the beauty and uniqueness of some places we had not visited before – like the Indiana Dunes National Park, a mountain-top monastery in Portland, the shores of Lake Erie, and Madera Canyon in southern Arizona.

Our hearts are full of gratitude – to you, and to God, for making this year possible. We have a few more weeks of savoring some time with our families over Christmas, last-minute medical appointments, and packing, and then we return to Juba the first week of January.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Cause for Celebration! (Nile Theological College Newsletter)

Please celebrate with me!  Over the last 15 months I have been working with a team of students and staff to create a bi-annual newsletter for our college, Nile Theological College, located in Juba, South Sudan.

As Kristi and I are on Interpretation Assignment (furlough) and vacation for six months in the US this year, my hope has been that the students and staff whom I have been working alongside would be able to create a newsletter in my absence.  You can imagine my jubilation when I recently learned that they did it!  (and it looks good).   Here is the link to our newest edition of our newsletter - happy reading!

Friday, November 8, 2019

A new start for farming

Food insecurity continues to be a major problem in several parts of South Sudan. The conflict and instability has displaced many people from their homes and made it unsafe for others to farm fields, which exacerbates the food insecurity problem. But this year, with a tenuous peace in the country, church leaders wanted to help people in stable areas to be able to ‘restart’ their farms. The SSPEC (South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church) received a grant to provide seeds and tools to some of its congregations where people were able to farm but did not have the means to get started. They sent funds to a few congregations in different regions of South Sudan this year, investing in and hoping for long-term development.

It is fun to see the photos of the sprouting plants and the harvested peanuts or grains as proud pastors of SSPEC report on these farming projects.

Here are some pictures from Pochalla, from clearing the field initially, to sprouted peanut plants, and finally the hard work of drying and shelling the peanuts.


In the region of Pochalla, there were multiple congregations involved, with a committee established to coordinate the work. As you can see from the photo on the bottom of people shelling peanuts, everyone got involved. I was encouraged to see that even men participated! The shelled peanuts spread out to dry in the last picture is the culmination of months of work and collaboration. And it is a great motivation and encouragement to people wearied by war that they can have a hand in changing their situation.

Unfortunately, this month there has been flooding in several parts of South Sudan. People are again displaced from their homes, forced to rebuild, and struggling to find food to eat. As far as I know, Pochalla has not had floods, but several other areas have. Please pray for the recovery efforts, and that South Sudan would again become a source of food rather than just a recipient.