Friday, September 22, 2017

Home visit

We have really enjoyed getting to know our Arabic teacher, Elder Charles Peter during our lessons. We hear about his family, his neighborhood, and his work as a missionary, showing the Jesus film and preaching in various parts of town. In Africa you don’t need to wait for an invitation, so one day we told him that we wanted to visit his home. “Wonderful!” He replied in Arabic, “My wife will make kudra for you. It is delicious!”

Last week the big day came. We took two different buses out to Gudele, a district near the edge of town. We met him on a busy street corner, and then took a rickshaw (a three-wheeled covered contraption that holds 4 people) down a dirt road until we reached his neighborhood. Then, a short walk, where we were thrilled to see grass and flowers along the sides of the road and streams that bisect the road (and swell to make them impassable when it rains). In the middle of town where we live in a 4-story building, we are a little starved for nature, so it felt very refreshing to be reminded of what a more typical neighborhood looks like.

Bob and Charles on the road in Gudele - Enjoying the green!
When we reached the house, we met his wife, son, nephew, and a few neighbors. We were ushered into the
house, and we enjoyed the chance to finally talk with his wife who we had heard so much about. We looked through pictures from their wedding and early years together. We heard more of their experience in Malakal in 2013, when war erupted and they were forced to flee, leaving all of their household possessions to be looted by the invading soldiers. They lived in a UN camp for a few weeks, sleeping under only a tarp, until a friend helped to evacuate them to Uganda. They returned to South Sudan because of a commitment to God’s work here, and their persevering hope and sacrifice to make the gospel known is humbling. Most of our conversation was in Arabic, which meant that sentences had to be repeated sometimes or new words clarified, but still a victory to be able to connect meaningfully in our new language!
Then, lunch was served and the awaited kudra was brought in. Kudra are leaves that are ground and cooked to make a thick green soupy mixture, often with chunks of meat included in it. In Juba kudra is eaten with a starch like kisra (similar to Ethiopian injira) or asiida (like ugali in East Africa). Charles Peter was right—it really was delicious, and Mama Wigdan was vigilant to make sure that our plates were never empty until we were stuffed and protesting that we couldn’t possibly eat any more.

Eating kudra for the first time – a favorite dish in South Sudan
After that great meal, we realized clouds were gathering and we should start the journey home. Charles accompaied us back to the main road, rode the first bus with us and even paid our fare on the second bus back to our part of town. With Bob’s energy still low because of the virus, big outings like this feel very special and appreciated. We felt so grateful for wonderful people like Charles Peter and Wigdan who exemplify to us the warm hospitality of the South Sudanese people.

With Charles Peter and Wigdan, at their home

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sitting with Suffering

We Americans have many natural gifts and talents derived from the strengths of our culture.  We are good “fix it” people.  If there is a problem, we are right on it.  A natural disaster happens, a flood, a hurricane, and we have already mobilized first responders even before the catastrophe happens.  Months and even years later we give money and our time to help those in need.  We are creative problem solvers who cannot live with intolerable suffering in our midst.  On the other side of the pendulum, on the negative side, lies our propensity to shield ourselves from the pain of others, because often we cannot identify with their suffering.  When someone we know is in pain, we may try to placate the situation with statements such as – “Just give it time, things will get better.”  “Everything will be OK. Just have a good attitude and things will improve soon enough.”

We, Americans, are good at "fixing things," but not always
good at sitting with suffering

Having lived in places like Rwanda, Congo, and now South Sudan, I have come to realize that our American propensity to fix things and to avoid pain with polite half-truisms will only take one so far.  What happens when the problem can’t be fixed, or be fixed expeditiously and efficiently?  What if time isn’t enough to heal generational wounds?  Here in Juba, South Sudan, it feels like every day we are bombarded from all sides with needs.  Every time we step out of our building we are accosted multiple times by men, women, and young children who have the look of hunger and hopelessness in their eyes.  They ask for a handout but obviously they need so much more.  How can one “fix” this problem?  What words will ever be enough?  Last week Susan, one of the cleaners of our building, came up to Kristi and grasped her hair, saying, “God must love you White People.  He gives you nice, soft hair and a good life.  God must love you more than the rest of us!”  Kristi, understandably, was at a loss for words.  How does one respond to such an honest lament?  How does one respond to the inherent injustices of our world, a warped world which favors some to the exclusion of others?

Two years ago I was asked to provide time for theological reflection for a divinity student named John who had come to Congo on a summer internship.*  Every few weeks John and I would sit down and reflect together on what he was seeing and learning.  In one particularly poignant session, we reflected on the nature of suffering.  John told me that the suffering he was confronted with in Congo made him want to turn and run.  The suffering John was witnessing was simply intolerable to his American, white, middle class sensibilities.  Yet, as we sat together with the Scriptures and in a posture of prayer, we came to see that Jesus was unique in that he was able and willing to sit with people in their suffering.  He did not turn and run from them.  This theological reflection became an object lesson for both John and I, that sitting with people in their suffering is a form of ministry, even when we are unable to fix their pain and don’t have the words to make things better.      

This lesson has become even more poignant to me on a deeply personal level over the last three months as I have been diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus, an illness which has rendered me weak and tired, an illness which lingers and can last months and even longer.  At times, well-meaning family members and friends have exhibited the American fix-it mentality or have shared words intended to help me without realizing the insensitivity of what they are saying.  What I need most is not to be “fixed” or to be given pat answers.  What I need most, and what I need most to hear, are words like: 

“I am so sorry that this has happened to you; we will stand with you in every way possible.  I can understand how you might feel frustrated and angry at God right now.  I can understand how you are feeling down at times.  I also affirm your perception that God is trying to teach you something through this.  I will pray that God reveals to you what that is.  This must be so hard – adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, dealing with the grief from Congo, and now dealing with this health challenge.  We will indeed pray for healing, but we will also pray that God uses this season of grief and illness for His greater plan and glory.”

So often I feel rather helpless here in South Sudan.  I cannot fix the multitudinous problems and my words will never be enough.  What I can do, as I am learning even from my own situation of pain, is to simply sit with people in their suffering.  I can bless and serve them by looking them in the eyes and seeing them as human beings worthy of dignity and honor.  Of course I can also pray for healing and change and seek to find long term solutions, but perhaps what is most needful in the moment by moment realities of everyday life is to just accompany people, sitting with them in their pain, and being present to them with their questions.  Sitting with suffering, I believe, is what God is calling us to do, above and beyond what our cultural instincts might tell us.  Lord Jesus, may we heed this call. 

*John is a pseudonym for the divinity student mentioned.    



Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Learning, like little children

I am repeatedly reminded of the similarities between us as language learners and very young children as they are learning to talk. When we walk the streets of Juba and greet someone we know, other heads turn in amusement. “You speak Arabic?” they ask. When we say yes, we are learning Arabic, people are excited, and often want to quiz us on what we know. One fruit vendor pointed to different fruit “what is this? And this one?”, celebrating the ones I knew and correcting the ones that I had forgotten. And then they might rattle off some question that we don’t understand at all. When we ask them to repeat and slow down, they happily comply, simplifying the language so that we are more likely to catch the meaning.

We enjoyed a long talk in Arabic with Santos about life, family, and farming –
using lots of gestures and props to help when words were lacking.

One of our favorite places to practice has been Mary’s friendly tea stall across the street. The tea stall only has room for about 8 people, all facing each other. It is a great atmosphere for conversation, and often everyone gets engaged in the conversation. It is rather humbling and embarrassing when other conversations stop as people ask about why we are in Juba, where we are from, etc. We have met some wonderful people and patient teachers on our random visits there. Many people patiently repeat what they are trying to communicate or help to correct our pronunciation—just like you might for a two-year old. When we manage to use a word or phrase that is an idiom, or is perceived as beyond our beginner level, people laugh and exclaim and praise us—just like you would for a precocious young child. And then, of course, there are the times when people talk ‘over’ us, conversing about us while we are left guessing what they are saying. Or going back to their ‘real’ conversations while we listen and observe and just guess at what they are discussing—just like children overhearing bits of the ‘adult’ conversation!
Mary, making tea for us at her tea stall

Most people we encounter are amused and affirming of our desire to learn Juba Arabic…even when we make mistakes. When we are trying to say something but have the words bumbled up or the wrong pronunciation, they are patient with us as we search for words or try to explain until they finally understand and laugh at our mis-pronunciation or wrong words. We are grateful that we can provide some amusement, and also grateful that people are willing to be patient with us and help us learn…just like adults do for young children!

And we DO make plenty of mistakes. Here are a couple of our recent faux-pas.:
During a language lesson, Bob got  call from a man who wanted us to come visit. “Let me talk to Kristi”, Bob said in Arabic, and then meant to say “then I will call you back”. Except that the word “call” in Juba is the same words as to ‘beat’ or ‘hit’ something. So without the right conjunction, what Bob said was “then I will beat you”. Our language teacher, listening to the conversation, corrected him and then burst out laughing at the difference. Lesson learned!
I was sitting outside with two women, Umi and Mary, one evening. I mentioned an area of town where we had visited a church, called in Arabic “the Arab neighborhood” because historically there was a concentration of Arabs there. Except that I did not remember the name correcty, and instead said, essentially, “The neighborhood of the long white robes”. Similar word and similar concept, but they found it a rather amusing slip. Umi roasts and sells pumpkin seeds on the street, so she offered some to Mary and I as we chatted. I was happily chewing mine, when Mary asked me “Kristi, where are your shells of the seeds?” I realized then that she was spitting them out, and I was swallowing them. Oops! They laughed again at my naivete, but I am so grateful for they were willing to point out my mistakes and help me learn.
It feels like this is a sweet ‘period of grace’ in our language learning. After three years, we will no longer be the novel new people, and will not be shown the same grace and patience with language that we are today. We hope that with the help and correction of many ‘elders’ around us, we will improve and mature in our ability to communicate in Arabic.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Meeting the Neighbors!

Last Sunday we decided to take our daily evening walk in a different direction.  On the way towards one of the shops we frequent we saw the smiling face of Adil, the shop owner.  We stopped to chat and before we knew it, he invited us to his home!  Then we saw the butcher of the shop, Anwar, trailing close behind.  The four of us walked the short distance to their home, learning that Adil and Anwar are brothers and live together.  Entering the compound of their home was surreal.  It felt more like an open air boarding house for young migrant workers.  We saw several other workers from the shop/butchery and were surprised that they all live together.  Being in the relaxed environment of their home was a pleasant experience.  Most of them donned their “Jalabia,” the long flowing white robes which conjure images of Middle Eastern life.  They gave us sodas to drink and peanuts and other snacks to eat.  They took out their phones and began taking pictures with us all together as we laughed and enjoyed this serendipitous moment.  All of these men are from Sudan (the neighboring country to the north) and their families and children all live in Khartoum, the capital city.  One of them whom I spoke with returns once a year for a couple of months, which is probably more or less true for all of them.  

Picture taken with Abdulafat (left) and his brother who
sent us this photo from his phone via WhatsApp

Before leaving, Anwar gave us a tour of the place, leading us back to Adil’s room, the only fully enclosed room on the compound that we observed.  Adil is the elder statesman of the group, a wise and affable looking fellow who will soon be travelling back to Khartoum for the big feast of Eid al-Adha.  Adil has a nice room with a couple of beds and a television; when we entered his room he was watching an impressive prayer service from Saudi Arabia.  He took out a small bottle of cologne and began spraying us with it – commenting on how nice it smells! 

Walking in the other direction on most evenings we have met Ismael, Adam and Naem.  All three are young men and live near each other and possibly work together repairing cars.  Ismael’s father died and his mother and siblings live in Khartoum.  He is of the Dinka tribe and is originally from a place called Bor.  Adam, his friend, is from Darfur.  Naem, whom we have met twice now in the last week, lives with his son and mother and other children related to their family.  His mother, Helen Frederick, is a dignified looking woman who calls us “her children.”  She has invited us to come and visit her in her home sometime.  Ismael and Naem have invited us to join them for the upcoming feast commemorating the sacrifice God provided in place of Abraham’s son.

A significant component of our language learning methodology and philosophy is learning language in community, not in a classroom.  We don’t have a language teacher but rather a “language helper,” and our goal is to learn with him on a regular basis, but then to be “out and about” listening, learning and speaking with native speakers of Juba Arabic and Sudanese Arabic.* 

Each person whom we have named in this blog post is Muslim. It has been interesting how we have connected with several Muslims in our neighborhood in the process of language learning.  While the Arab/Islamic influence from the North is indeed strong, South Sudan is a predominantly “Christian” country, in that most of its citizens would ascribe to being either Catholic or Protestant.  South Sudan is the only Arabic speaking country in the world which is majority Christian.    

We are enjoying building these relationships in the community and thankful for these new Muslim neighbors and friends.  Here in South Sudan there is a great deal of acceptance and grace given to one another across the religious spectrum; there are even inter-religious marriages between Muslims and Christians.  In a world that is becoming increasingly polarized along national, ethnic and religious lines, we are grateful for the opportunity to build bridges with our Muslim sisters and brothers.  Pray that we can continue to find ways to bless one another!

*Sudanese Arabic and Juba Arabic are two distinct languages, similar but different.  Sudanese or Khartoum Arabic is closer to the Classical Arabic of places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  If one knows Khartoum Arabic, one is able to speak more widely in the Arab world.  Juba Arabic is a creole or pidgin.  It is a language unto itself yet does not have an official status, not even in South Sudan.  It is widely spoken and understood here in Juba and throughout much of South Sudan, particularly the Equatorial regions. We are primarily learning Juba Arabic, but also picking up some of the more classical words and expressions as well.    

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Waking up White

I am half-way through the book Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. I heartily recommend the book to anyone, and appreciate hearing Debbie’s story of her long search to understand race and its impact in America. The book is thought-provoking and disturbing in good ways – I think it is always good when our assumptions or the status-quo are challenged so that we have to really think about what we are doing and why. I wanted to share a few things from the book that have stood out to me so far or have been helpful.

One idea that stands out is the idea that both discrimination and privilege are components of racism. Irving says, “Just as time has compounded disadvantages for people living on the downside of systemic racism, it has compounded the advantages I and other white people enjoy. My life is built on family members able to get citizenship without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low rate loans, good education, and solid health care. Each generation has set up the starting point for the next, perpetuating the illusion that white people are more successful, not beneficiaries of an inequitable system.” I admit that I have somehow had the notion that racism was just an act or perspective of discrimination in the present—conveniently ignoring the fact that if there is privilege for some, then there is discrimination or lack of privilege for others, even if that is the result of actions taken in the past.

Living in places like Congo and now South Sudan, we are challenged often by the reality of our privilege while living in countries where poverty is pervasive and extreme. I never had to stay home from school because my parents could not pay the school fees, nor was forced to flee my home alone when it was attacked. I grew up speaking a language with a wealth of educational materials and came to know early the incredible love and grace of God. Sometimes the disparity is overwhelming as we recognize we do not deserve anything more than anyone else of any nationality. We are humbled and grateful for many brothers and sisters in Christ who are materially poor but who inspire us, teach us, and welcome us to join them in seeking to make the Kingdom of God known.
The second concept from the book is that “…Not talking about race [is] a privilege available only to white people.” This really struck me – I admit that exploring my own privilege or the ongoing effects of systemic racism in the U.S. are uncomfortable subjects that I try to avoid – but to realize that some people in America are daily facing the brunt end of discrimination while I can ignore it was really disturbing. “This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love from their fellow human beings”. How often do you have conversations about race (unless something like Charlottesville happens)? When I do not feel well-versed in a complex and controversial issue, I tend to stay silent. So this is my fumbling effort to put a few thoughts out there to start a conversation, given that we are far from the U.S. and not able to have these conversations in person.

Finally, this book explores what it means to be “white” in America, and the history of racial perceptions. Irving says, “understanding whiteness, regardless of class, is key to understanding racism.” What are my particular cultural values, and how does that impact how I perceive others or the assumptions I might make? Of course, one or two hundred years ago in America there was much more distinction and discrimination between some of the European immigrants – the Irish, the Germans, or the Swedish had their section of town and may have felt discriminated against by other groups. But gradually these distinctions blurred and gave way to discriminations against other races. We, as a country, have come a long way from the legal racial segregation and oppression that used to occur in our country. Perhaps the white supremacist gathering such as in Charlottesville is a visible expression of what you could call “extreme” racism. But I wonder if there are many more subtle ways – even subconscious—that we perpetuate racist systems or legacies that give us ‘privilege’ over others? Last year Bob and I started reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. It is a long, heady, book, but he does a masterful job of laying out the history of African Americans in the U.S., particularly regarding education and economic opportunities. Understanding our own history and the particular history of other groups that we intersect with helps us identify our cultural values and how they might clash with the values of others.

These are just a few things that are ruminating in my mind. If some of them resonate with you or challenge you, I encourage you to read the book or explore in other ways. I welcome your thoughts and feedback as I (and we) continue to learn about the tragic mistakes of the past, our own faults in the present, and seek to live lives that communicate God’s heart of love and justice to each person created in His image.