Come along with us back to our neighborhood tea stall. It is late Tuesday afternoon, when the heat is just starting to lessen but still 95 degrees in the shade. We pick our way over the ruts and trash in the dirt alleyway of the market to where there are some chairs set up in the shade along a wall. This spot is the afternoon location for Mary’s ‘mahel shayi’, or tea stall. In the midst of greeting Mary, I hear someone yell “Kristi!” and see a shape come flying towards me. Mary’s daughter Fonfon, about age 9, runs around the corner and wraps her arms around me in an exuberant hug. She is with her sister and cousin, and we exchange greetings and congratulate her on the recent award she won for being the top student in her class.
Then we go and greet each of the three men sitting in the chairs, sitting down ourselves at the end of the row. We exchange greetings with Mary, asking about her other children and family. We order our tea – Bob, hibiscus with ginger, and me, green tea. Mary teases, asking if I drink green tea because I am on a diet as she turns and goes to make our tea. Perhaps it is the Arabic culture and Sudan to the North who have passed to the South Sudanese the habit of drinking hot tea even on a hot day. People in Juba can drink tea all day long, and it is one of the most common small businesses for women.
We notice Bushara, another regular at the tea stall, standing a few paces away at his table, set up in the alley where he is repairing electronic devices like cameras and printers. Bushara is a basketball coach, and we have seen him a few times at the basketball stadium with his team as we pass by on our walks in the neighborhood. Bushara likes to talk to Bob about NBA basketball; he is a fan of the Chicago Bulls, but concedes that they aren’t very good. Somehow we start talking about his time in Khartoum many years ago. He tells us how while in the army, when they issued him an ID card, they marked his religion as ‘Muslim’ because of his name. When he told them he was a Christian, they mocked him and started making life difficult. One of the reasons many Southerners left Khartoum was because they were persecuted there for being Christians. But then Bushara also tells us about a girls basketball team in the North who prayed and worshipped together and had great faith. “They won,” he said, “because of their great faith.” As Bushara animatedly tells his story, we struggle a bit to follow his Khartoum sounding Arabic, able however to get at least the sense of the story. “People used to have faith here, Bushara continues “but then with the war and the economic crisis, it is no longer like that. People just want money.” Like so many others, he laments the current struggle in South Sudan.
As we talk with Bushara, Santino, a stately older gentelmen who is another regular, walks up with another man. They greet everyone and find chairs in the middle of our row along the wall. His friend asked our names and how long we have been in Juba. “About seven months”, Bob replies in Arabic. “No, seven years!” he adamantly replies. “No, seven months,” Bob says again. “Not possible.” the man insists. “You can not speak Arabic like that in seven months.” We laugh, and ask Santino to vouch for us that we indeed came to Juba just last year. Before leaving, we learn that the man is actually Santino’s younger brother, which means that he is of the same tribe as Santino. Bob has intentionally learned some greetings and phrases in some of the local tribal languages and greets him in Bari. “Oh, you speak Bari?” the man replies in Bari. This, of course, is beyond what we know in that language, and we are befuddled. But Bob, always eager to learn, has him repeat the phrase until he can write it down and repeat it.
Finally, after an hour of talking and drinking tea, we get up to leave. We are grateful for these familiar and friendly people who help us feel connected in the community and who help us as we practice and learn Arabic. We wish that we could show you a picture of this wonderful place of hospitality, but we do not take pictures in public in Juba because it often makes people angry. So, you wil lhave to imagine from our word picture, and give thanks to God with us for these inspiring and helpful people that we drink tea with in the shade.