Tag Archives: South Sudan

Revisiting The Terrifying Sound Of Silence.

When I write this blog, I always have to be aware that everything I observe is as an outsider. As such, my thoughts on everything African should be treated as suspect, even if the opinions I express are informed. So I take it as a blessing when something I have written in the past is confirmed by an African source, even if I’d rather the subject was not true. That happened this week, as a friend of mine in South Sudan wrote a small piece. His name is Manyang Mayar, and he’s a journalist.

Four years ago, I laid in a hammock in Bor, South Sudan, trying to sleep. I was unable to sleep though, because the noise was keeping me up. I wrote down an observation at that time that has been one of the most commented on since then. This short entry was written as an outsider coming into South Sudan. This week Manyang wrote a piece from the perspective of an insider going out of South Sudan. I’m going to post mine first, then his. I think you’ll find the two perspectives enlightening.

The Terrifying Sound Of Silence.

Just a short post as I sweat here in my hammock. As I lay here in complete darkness, but hearing music in the background, I’m reminded again of an observation made on my first visit and only confirmed since then. The South Sudanese hate silence. They listen to music all night. When they’re in a car they crank the stereo up until it distorts. You can be standing in a group of people having a conversation, and one of them will start blasting a song from their cell phone. It’s as if they think as long as there’s music or noise, things are ok. That bad things only happen during the night, when things are silent and dark, and terrible things come out of the darkness and silence. When it’s dark and silent, that’s when the attacks come, when children and cattle are stolen. It’s when the snakes crawl into your bed for warmth. It’s as if as long as there’s noise, things are alright. It’s like children who are afraid of monsters, only here the monsters are real. There’s been a lot of talk here about insecurity, about the attacks that come from cattle raiders, and the fact that they’re not far away.  70 people were killed here just last week in cattle raids, and people go to bed afraid. And so I think of that as I lay here in my hammock, wishing for silence.

And now Manyang’s article. This was used with permission.

A night out of Juba is worth good meal of hundred years.

First Published in PaanLuel Wel. For those who could not access the site in Juba.

By Manyang David Mayar, Eldoret, Kenya

(SSB 7 January 2018) I just discovered why my fellow South Sudanese who travel outside of the country’s capital return to Juba healthier compared to the time they left Juba.

For the past many years, I have been seeing some South Sudanese leaving Juba to East African Countries in order to spend their holidays. Sometimes others go for training or for studies in Nairobi or Kampala, Addis Ababa or China and other foreign countries. Most of them fly out of Juba International Airport or cross through the Nimule border with a rough skin and wrinkled faces. But when they return, they come back home with smooth skin; looking fresh and healthier than the time they left Juba.

I have been wondering what could it be – the thing that improves people’s health instantly in the foreign countries. I used to think it might be the cold nice weather in those countries that improve their health, or it might be the nice food or perhaps the free public transport that you don’t need to fight for like in Juba. Fortunately, a time came for me to experience the secret myself.

After spending some few nights outside of Juba recently in one of the East African countries, I had a chance to discover the secret of why South Sudanese become healthier when they are out of Juba.

Sleeping in one of the estates in one of the Kenyan towns, I experienced the calm and peace that my soul and spirit had been longing for. Every evening after I take my shower and eat (just the same maize flour and ngete, the same food I eat in Juba), I go to bed and sleep until morning.

There was no time in the night that a sound of bullet from robbers woke me up. I didn’t have to pause my breath at midnight in order to pay attention to some little sounds outside. And when my bladder has accumulated urine, I wake up easily and go to the urinary without any worry at all. And during the past few days that I have been here, I have found that relaxation and peace of mind that I, like most other South Sudanese, don’t really find back home.

In Juba, after taking my shower and have taken my evening meal, I go to bed. I spend many hours paying attention to little sound happening outside. It could be a wind blowing those empty bottles outside, or some of those wild cats and dogs stepping on some metals. But because my subconscious mind is full of stories about how unknown gunmen had raided the other house, I don’t usual catch my sleep and rest easily.

Worse of it all is when my bladder becomes full of urine. When this happens, I usually open my eyes into the dark and throw my ears outside to access the situation. Is there someone moving, could there be someone waiting for me outside? And then my heart will start pumping. Because of those thoughts, I sometimes convince myself that the morning is soon approaching and that I should ignore for just few hours. My bladder would remain hurting until morning.

Some other nights, I carry with me a container to use later at night when urine knocks the door of my bladder. But even though I have a container in the house, you don’t urinate at ease. I first let my ears do the environment check before I make any move in my own house.

This is the life many South Sudanese go through. People in Juba go to bed alive and died through the whole night. And when the daylight breaks, their being alive becomes a reality again. This is the reason they look healthier when they travel outside Juba even if it is just for a week. This is another beauty of peace that we don’t know. That is why some of us are desperately looking for peace.

When we talk about the need for peace, it is not just about stopping war, it is actually about bringing that kind of atmosphere where citizens can sleep at ease in their houses and not worrying about anything at all in their country.

So what is it that make these East African Countries peaceful compared to our country? It is on two simple things: the strong rule of law that crack down the crimes and the hard working citizens who strive to work for themselves.

In my country, the rule of law is weak in combating crimes and people are relying on short cut to get their wealth. Instead of going to the countryside and produce food, majority of unemployed hungry folks remained in the city only to be night robbers. Of course they exploit the chance of the soft rule of law against them. And by doing what they do, they are making most of their fellow citizens especially in Juba get sick each night.

When we choose to embrace peace and hard work, we will experience the very best of our country.

© Manyang_David 2018

Just a quick reminder that if you’d like to read more about my experiences with missions, you can buy my ebook at the following link, as well as at major online sources like Ibooks and Barnes and Noble. The title is “The Missional Life. What I Learned From Engaging in Missions in East Africa.” The proceeds from this book help fund the work I continue to do in Africa.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/704141

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The Difference Between Liberation And Eviction.

The past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the harder aspects of some of the things I’ve seen over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about things like poverty and setting the captives free. I’ve been particularly thinking about why some people and some cultures have been successful at dealing with theses things and why some have gone down tragic roads, when from the outside it looked like many of them had similar origins.

These are particularly hard subjects to understand for the western mind, because we live in a culture where we get most of our information about poverty and oppression from movies and a media that sees these subjects as sufficiently distant from personal experience to understand them in the kind of visceral way that people in South Sudan or the Congo would.

We believe in a number of things that, though possibly politically correct, when tested turn out to be factually false. We believe things like; poverty is mostly a problem of lack of resources, or that all oppressed people are naturally angelic, or that if people could just have oppression removed they would thrive. We believe these things because they are the subject of so many feel good stories. I would like to believe them to, but my experiences in parts of Africa have taught me that even though these things can happen, life is usually far more complicated and usually much messier than this.

My time in South Sudan was a huge eye opener for me. The South Sudanese were oppressed horribly by the Northern Sudanese for decades, in ways that for brevity I’m not going to get into. I first went to South Sudan in 2010, right before they achieved independence from the North. I saw the hope and the excitement on people’s faces as they prepared for the vote that would free them from their oppressors. Surely this was the Hollywood story everyone wanted and expected to see. Not quite.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times, and got to personally see the situation devolve into chaos. The South Sudanese went from fighting against the Northern oppressors to fighting against each other. If you’d like to read more about that, you can go back into some of my blog posts from 2013 and 2014 particularly. So what happened?

To say I can explain all of the aspects of this in a single blog post would be naive and foolish, because it’s an incredibly complex subject, and entire books could be written about it. So I’m going to focus on just a small part.

I want to start by drawing some parallels between the situation in South Sudan and the written account we have of another oppressed culture that was freed from its captors around 3400 years ago. I’m speaking of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as written in the book of Exodus. There are many things written that can give us insight into the kind of things that happen when an enslaved culture is freed, particularly if you know what you’re looking for. The great thing about Exodus is that is quite comprehensive, and conveys a complete timeline.

One of the things that many Westerners don’t have a grasp of is the mental, emotional, cultural, and spiritual damage that is caused by institutionalized oppression, particularly slavery. This can manifest in people as hopelessness, a feeling of powerlessness, depression, and sometimes even paranoia. The end result is that when an opportunity comes for people to be free, they often don’t take it. Oppressed people often choose the miserable security of keeping your head down and staying alive than taking a chance at freedom. This is evident in Exodus 6:9. Moses is interceding on behalf of his people, and he goes to give them instruction. Their response is in Exodus 6:9. “So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”

Later on there are a series of events that happen that as I read them, made me initially think about these parallels. The Israelites have been set free and are crossing the desert when it dawns on the Egyptians that they’ve lost their free labor. The Egyptians send out their army to retake the Israelites. As the cloud of dust rises on the horizon from the Egyptian army, there is a record of what the Israelites say, and it is surprisingly fatalistic and even has a hint of longing for the land in which they were enslaved.

Exodus 14:11 Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?

Exodus 14:12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.”

And in another situation, later on, Exodus 16:3, And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Their response is puzzling until you realize one thing, and this is the key. Moses interceded on the Israelites behalf because it was God’s will that they should be freed. For many of the Israelites, they were content with the security of the situation, miserable as it was. After God sent the plagues, the Israelites became a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh, and there was no longer a choice to stay. This is why it’s so important when we’re working with oppressed people to allow them ways to empower themselves. Many of the Israelites were not so much liberated as evicted from Egypt, and it’s when we realize this that their responses suddenly make sense. The Israelites continue to act like slaves even though they are physically free people for the next forty years. Moses was able to take the Israelites out of slavery, but he was unable to remove the slave from the Israelites. In fact, it is not until the next generation grew up, a generation that never knew what it was like to be a slave, that they are able to enter the promised land, because you can not build a nation with people that are still slaves in their heart.

This is what I found in South Sudan. A nation that knew nothing but oppression and slavery and warfare, and doing what each person needs to do to survive on a daily basis, has walked into freedom with the same attitude. Whereas the common enemy used to be the North, now the common enemy is every man’s neighbor. No one has a plan for the future, because people are still living to survive the current moment. I understand that it is hard to change an entire way of thinking and living, but I hope and pray that the South Sudanese don’t have to wander in the desert for forty years until a generation is raised up that know how to live in freedom.

Leaving Home.

In four days I leave for Ethiopia. This will be my third trip to Ethiopia. I’ve also been to South Sudan four times, and I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been to Kenya. Every country I’ve been to, and every city, and every village has been different in some way or another. Cultures are different. Tribes are different. Nations that border each other have vastly different characters and cultures. I’m only talking about East Africa. I haven’t even been to central or West Africa, and only passed through South Africa.

I sincerely wish everyone could do what I do, at least once. I wish everyone could uproot and leave home, truly leave home and go somewhere so far out of their comfort zone that you couldn’t stand on a stool and see where your comfort zone is.

I hear so many people say, “We are so blessed here. We have so much we take for granted.”  Having traveled to the places I’ve been, I know how true that statement is. I also realize how little the people saying it realize what they’re saying. If you take something for granted, then by definition you do not understand what it is that you either have or do not have. It’s easy to say, “We have so much,” because that’s the more obvious observation one can make, but it doesn’t mean you understand poverty. There is so much depth to what we don’t understand that I can’t describe it without taking someone with me and letting them experience it for themselves. There is so much more than, “We have so much.” There are cultural things we have so engrained within us that we have no understanding of how other cultures think. Each time I go, I understand a little more, and I realize more how much I don’t understand.

The observation of “We have so much” also belies our idea that our culture is somehow superior to other cultures, because we see them as having so little, while having little understanding of what we lack within our own culture. What are the divorce rates within American culture? How much of this “We have so much” is actually things we don’t need that get in the way of family relationships and friendships? How many families have been broken up because we had a choice of either building a legacy with our spouse or children, but we chose instead that a career was important and having a nicer car than our neighbor? How many of us have heart disease, cancer, gout, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity because we are “rich”? While most Africans would be considered poor in our eyes, it’s not always because they lack basic necessities. Rather it’s because our idea of “richness” is so monetarily based that we fail to see our own poverty. I know many Africans that have a legacy that I can only dream of.

There are so many other things we take for granted that I could get into, but I fear that it would only evoke a deer-in-the-headlights look in many readers. I say this not to be demeaning or to look down on people. It’s because I’ve been there.  It’s fairly easy to describe some ways of doing things that are different, but it’s virtually impossible to describe the different ways people think. Which brings me back to the beginning. If you ever have the chance to do missions, by all means go. Get to know the people one on one. Build relationships. You’ll find you learn just as much what you didn’t know about yourself as you do about them.

People walking along an open sewer in a slum in Africa

Overcoming My Deathly Fear Of Accountants.

In a week I leave for Kenya. My role has changed in many ways. I’m now not only a gatherer of media, but one of several trail blazers with a new mission in Africa’s largest slum. It makes me think back now on the times when I have been completely out of my element, and especially to the times when an incident caused me to become aware of my own shortcomings.

It was February 2013, and I was in Bor, South Sudan. I was laying in my hammock in a tin building, sweating down my neck and just trying not to let any part of my body touch another. Even at night it was almost 40 degrees. Earlier we had been sitting outside under the stars, but trying to avoid the wind and the dust by sitting in the shelter of the wall. When you stood up, you could hear distant machine-gun fire. None of us knew what was going on, and the man we were staying with hoped we hadn’t noticed. When someone asked, he tried to play it down. This was apparently not out of the ordinary.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, a gunshot rang out. It was close this time, very close.  A second shot rang out, and this time it ricocheted off the roof of the tin building. I quickly rolled out of my hammock and crouched in what little shelter there was behind the unmilled log that formed a support post for the building. It wasn’t much.

Fortunately, there was never a third shot, and I never really found out what happened, but that night taught me a lot about myself. I can honestly say I was not scared by that incident, but what went on in my head that night was far more telling. The thoughts that occupied my mind that night were not of gunfire or violence or whatever was hiding out there in the night. My thought were occupied with my finances when I got home. I have a very cyclical job, and there are times when I simply don’t have a lot, depending on the time of year. My thoughts were about how I was going to pay for my everyday expenses when I got home.

You might think this is very strange, and it probably is. But the fact was that I had given my life both figuratively and literally to God. Please see this previous blog on the subject. https://southsudantraveler.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/im-twelve-years-old-and-im-going-to-die/

But giving my life to God did not mean I had given all areas to him, and frankly, my finances were one of those areas I had not given. I like to maintain control over certain things, especially my finances. Maybe it’s something to do with being self-employed. While it’s strange to not worry about your own life but worry about your finances, I suspect we all do something along this line, just not to this extreme.

The fact is that there is nothing that I can lose that Jesus has not already won. You can’t lose a life you’ve already given up. You also can’t be poor when God is with you, even if you have nothing. It’s only now that I’m learning this. Romans 8 sums it up very well.

 “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?  Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,  nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We seek in vain to be free of trouble and danger and poverty, when all along we should be seeking to be within the heart of God. If we are there, then none of the other things matter. We are poured out as an offering before the throne of God, because that is the reason we were placed here. It is not for self-preservation, because there is no such thing. We are not here for self-glorification, because nothing temporal can achieve such a thing. We are here to do the will of God; that good and perfect will. To look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep ones’s self from being polluted by the world. This is a hard calling, but when everything is put in this perspective, suddenly my finances are not really a worry anymore. If God has called me to do what I’m doing, then the finances will take care of themselves. God does not send his workers without tools, whatever they may be. I just need to be reminded of that sometimes.

In one week I leave for Kenya. I am going with a little apprehension. But no matter what it is, God has it covered.

A South Sudanese man cleans his gun.
A South Sudanese man cleans his gun.

The Africa Everybody Has Seen And The Other Africa.

As I was thinking about all the posts I’ve done about Africa, photography, and missions. I’ve done posts on the people I’ve met and the broader concepts of all things related to Africa, but I’ve never published a post about the landscape of Africa. When people think of Africa, they usually think of herds of animals on the grasslands with the occasional Acacia tree breaking up the horizon. Sure, there’s that aspect of Africa, but there is so much more to it than that. There are jungles, scrublands, deserts, big cities, mountains, even glaciers. Today I decided to feature some of the landscapes I’ve seen on my travels in East Africa. These are all from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya, so you can imaging all there is to see in the other fifty or so counties. I’ve specifically tried to exclude people from these shots to focus on the landscapes, but there are some. Let these give you a sense of place, and please enjoy them. All can be clicked on for a larger view.

tea plantation on the slopes of Mt Kenya, Kenya
tea plantation on the slopes of Mt Kenya, Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

View of Juba, South Sudan from the top of Jebel Kujur
View of Juba, South Sudan from the top of Jebel Kujur

 

 

 

 

 

 

orange glow of sunrise over the Ethiopian highlands
orange glow of sunrise over the Ethiopian highlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

giraffe grazing with the skyline of Nairobi, Kenya in background
giraffe grazing with the skyline of Nairobi, Kenya in background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kibera, the largest slum in Africa and the third largest in the world.
Kibera, the largest slum in Africa and the third largest in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dry landscape and mountains of eastern Ethiopia near Somalia
dry landscape and mountains of eastern Ethiopia near Somalia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

180 degree panorama of Nairobi Kenya taken from rooftop.
180 degree panorama of Nairobi Kenya taken from rooftop.

 

 

 

 

 

aerial view of village in south sudan
aerial view of village in south sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

village and livestock along the white nile in South Sudan
village and livestock along the white nile in South Sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunrise and acacia tree in Africa, (the cliche Africa shot)
Sunrise and acacia tree in Africa, (the cliche Africa shot)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lush waterfall in the cloud forest on Mount Kenya, Africa
lush waterfall in the cloud forest on Mount Kenya, Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

street scene in Juba, capital of South Sudan
street scene in Juba, capital of South Sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

village with grassfire in background, South Sudan
village with grassfire in background, South Sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wide panorama of mount Kenya at dawn. Mt Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa at over 17,000 feet.
wide panorama of mount Kenya at dawn. Mt Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa at over 17,000 feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

aerial view of Juba, South Sudan and the white nile river
aerial view of Juba, South Sudan and the white nile river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hyenas at dawn in Kenya
Hyenas at dawn in Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

low aerial panorama of Juba, South Sudan
low aerial panorama of Juba, South Sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

patchwork of farms in Ethiopian highlands
patchwork of farms in Ethiopian highlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bor, South Sudan at night with star trails
Bor, South Sudan at night with star trails

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aerial panorama of the downtown area of Nairobi, Kenya
Aerial panorama of the downtown area of Nairobi, Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

Roundabout in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with light streaks from time exposure
Roundabout in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with light streaks from time exposure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juba, capital of South Sudan at night
Juba, capital of South Sudan at night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wild impala in forest in Kenya
wild impala in forest in Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ethiopian Orthodox church backlit by morning sun rays in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopian Orthodox church backlit by morning sun rays in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

aerial view of nile river and town in south sudan along the Juba-Bor road.
aerial view of nile river and town in south sudan along the Juba-Bor road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tank along the road between Torit and Juba, South Sudan
Tank along the road between Torit and Juba, South Sudan

 

 

 

 

The elephants at the Castle Forest Lodge in Kenya
The elephants at the Castle Forest Lodge in Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sudd, where the Nile spill outside its banks to form one of the worlds largest wetlands in South Sudan.
The Sudd, where the Nile spill outside its banks to form one of the worlds largest wetlands in South Sudan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Very Small World

I’m currently on a jetliner flying over the Atlantic, on a direct flight to Addis Ababa. I got up at 2 o’clock this morning to catch my first flight, so my schedule is way off. Leaving was pretty tough this time for a number of reasons I’m not going to get into, but I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s better than staying comfortable doing what you’re not supposed to be doing.
In the airport in Washington, I spotted a couple South Sudanese men from across the room, (yes, they’re that easy to spot) and talked with them for a while about places, politics, and all things South Sudan. It was really nice to be able to converse with people who are wholly familiar with these things, including specifics of people and far flung places we’ve all been. Furthermore, God works in amazing ways, because one of the men is trying to get a charity started bringing water wells into South Sudan, and incredibly I had a contact for him in Juba. My contact has the equipment to drill, which is what he was having a hard time finding. So God is already working, and I haven’t even reached my destination yet.
For now, I’m on the plane trying to teach myself to count to ten in Amharic, which is no easy task since its a completely unfamiliar language and I’ve got no hook to hang my hat on. More when I get to Addis.

Seeing Africa For The First Time

The first time I saw Africa was not looking out the window as I flew into Nairobi. It wasn’t when I got off the plane in Jomo Kenyatta Airport late in the evening to the cool air and the smell of charcoal smoke. It wasn’t the next morning waking to the cawing of the large ibises that are ubiquitous to Kenya. It wasn’t even the next day when I stepped off the next plane into the suffocating heat of Juba, South Sudan. The first time I saw Africa was several days later.

In the book, “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad writes of nineteenth century travelers, “Most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them-the ship… In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, and changing  immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance… A casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing.”

I believe this to be the case as much today as it was in 1899. People like the idea of seeing another culture, but would rather do it as one looks at fish in a bowl. This is why cruises are so popular. Go to a new place every day, take the sanitized, expurgated tour designed to solidify preconceptions and stereotypes you came with, and at the end of the day be safely back within the insular confines of familiar comforts.

This is why the first time I saw Africa was several days after I got there. It was when everything familiar was left behind that I really saw Africa, and it was a day I will never forget. It was the day that I realized this was not a one time event, but something that was to become part of me. It was the day it occurred to me (because it hadn’t yet) that I would be back many times.

The day I’m referring to was about my fourth day in South Sudan. We originally had no plans to go where we ended up going, but the pastor we were there to visit arranged for us to go and visit his home village, about a three hour off-road drive from Bor, where we were staying. That day I saw things I never imagined I would see. The cattle herders herding cattle with horns so immense it’s hard to imagine how something could carry something that large. The grass fires rolling across the plains, set by people deliberately to renew the land with fresh grass for the next season. We met the chief of the village of Liliir, a man with three wives, seventeen children, and I’m not sure how many grandchildren. He had been the chief of this village of 60,000 for fifty years, and ruled not with an iron fist, but with wisdom and respect. I met a man who was 110 years old that day, and who could remember when the British colonialists came. His wife was much younger, and when I asked to take her picture, she hurried into her hut to put her best clothes on.  As we traveled back that day, by chance we came across a gathering of two cattle camps. They were there for South Sudan’s favorite sport, wrestling. We asked the driver if we could stop and watch, and the cattle camp got the first foreign audience they had probably ever seen. It was absolutely amazing.  That was the day I became immersed in the culture; where all the familiar was left behind and I was able to experience Africa as part of Africa, and not through the glass. It was a turning point for me, when the foreign became not so foreign, and my worldview changed. It was the reason I write this blog today, and the reason I’m going back to Africa in less than two months.

A cattle herder on the plains of South Sudan
A cattle herder on the plains of South Sudan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chief with one of his children and one of his grandchildren.
The chief with one of his children and one of his grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Khalei, 110 years old with his much younger wife.
Khalei, 110 years old with his much younger wife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The grassfires near Liliir.
The grassfires near Liliir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The children gathered to watch wrestling.
The children gathered to watch wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children starting the grassfires.
Children starting the grassfires.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the more painful moments during wrestling.
One of the more painful moments during wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrestling.
Wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The elders gathered for the meeting with the chief.
The elders gathered for the meeting with the chief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A man in the village cleaning his prized but very old Kalashnikov.
A man in the village cleaning his prized but very old Kalashnikov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A beautiful woman with tribal scarification.
A beautiful woman with tribal scarification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trying To Understand Juba

Juba, South Sudan, seen from the air.
Juba, South Sudan, seen from the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There aren’t a lot of places like Juba, at least not that I’ve experienced. If you fly in, generally you either come from Addis Ababa or Nairobi, and the first thing you notice is the shock of the first blast of heat as you step onto the tarmac, especially after the cool temperatures of either of the previous places. Many things in Juba are just like other cities in Africa; the dust, the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruisers and motorcycle taxis, the smell of diesel and wood smoke. But other things are distinctly different, namely the tangible sense of desperation. It’s hard for me to describe to someone who hasn’t been there, but I’m going to try. After that, I’m going to try to do an even harder task, and that is to explain why.

The first thing is to describe the conditions on the ground. Juba went from a town of 115,000 in 1993 to a city of somewhere between 500,000 and a million in the past couple years. Obviously there was no way for infrastructure to keep up with that kind of growth. Since the oil shipments into Sudan stopped a couple years ago, there is no functioning power grid in the entire country, and you only have electricity if you have a generator. There are some paved roads through town, but almost all roads are just rutted dirt tracks that become very hard to travel if it rains. Juba’s dirt turns into a slick mud you could almost skate on, so driving is quite a challenge. Copious amounts of garbage is burned because there is no other way to deal with it, so it occasionally rains black ribbons of ash, and smoke sits on the city. There is no central water supply. All water is trucked to individual water tanks from the Nile, which runs through the city (and is quite beautiful). Consequently waterborne disease is a major problem. None of these things on their own really explain the sense that comes over you in Juba, though. I believe the reason for that sense is the same reason the city has grown so fast in the last fifteen years.

Traditionally, the South Sudanese have lived in villages in the scrub forests and grasslands. They live in traditional thatched huts in family groups, among a larger village. Some villages are extremely large. They raise cattle with enormous horns, and do some farming with very basic methods. They have very tight family and community ties. One of the reasons westerners (especially Americans) have a hard time understanding Africans is because of the way we see time and the way we see our role within a community. We see time as a finite thing to be planned out and quantified, divided and packaged. We have day planners and use phrases like, “time is money” or “how am I going to get that hour back?” Africans largely see time (or don’t see time) more as somewhat of an unlimited resource, and if something doesn’t get done now, that’s ok. The focus is more on relationships and community. Church doesn’t necessarily start at such and such a time It starts when the pastor is ready and the drum beat starts to signal for everyone to come. There are advantages and disadvantages to each way of seeing time. In the first way, time can be used more productively for producing goods or services, but the other way people tend to have closer relationships and a stronger sense of belonging and community. Villages truly raise the children, and the elderly are not abandoned to nursing homes.

So what happened?  Well, in a nutshell, the war happened. South Sudan was at war with northern Sudan almost constantly from the 1950’s through 2011, when independence was finally declared (though some level of war still goes on with north Sudan.) Even when there wasn’t all out war, there was oppression from the Arab, Muslim northern government against the Black Christian and Animist south. Decades of war caused people to flee to wherever they could find safety. One of these places was Juba. The choice was to stay and raise cattle and be killed, or head to the relative safety of a large group of people in Juba. This desperation along with tribal division (which is a subject worthy of a book more than a blog) caused violent cattle raids and the abduction of children. This was another reason to leave the villages and head to the city.

So people left their villages. The lucky ones could take their families with them, the unlucky ones either had lost their families to the war, or had been separated from them in the diaspora. Community was lost.  The cattle were raided, which is currency in South Sudan, so they no longer had assets. From a distance, Juba looked pretty good as the promise of a job and security called. Juba has now become the African version of a gold-rush town in the American west. People come with hope of a new life, security, and a way to take care of their families.

This is where those two different ways of seeing time come in. There are a certain number of South Sudanese and a lot of foreigners that run businesses in Juba. They understand that time is money, They are also more individualistic people who are driven personally to succeed rather than seeing themselves as much as part of the community. They are there to make money, not build a community. It’s a very western way of thinking. It’s good for running a business, but not good for building lives, and it’s not the prevailing way of thinking in South Sudan. These people naturally become successful as business owners, but people coming in from the villages don’t think this way, and are quickly exploited by those that do. Making this situation worse is that in Juba, all the tribes have been thrown together, and there’s always that tension under the surface. Consequently you have a high capacity for violence. You have a large number of people who came looking for a better life and didn’t find it. They’re alone, their community is gone, everything that is familiar is gone, and they have no money. The only thing worse than having no hope is thinking you had hope and then finding out it was false.  All of this together is what creates that tangible desperation I was speaking of. Juba is a place where I always feel like I have to look over my shoulder.

I might try to write later on what might be done about this, but I really don’t know if I’m up to the task. My goal today was really to try to bring some understanding to this subject. There are of course more layers to this, as nothing with people is simple.

The Snake Woman And The Blind Man

A couple of years ago, I was in Juba, South Sudan. I heard of a recent ‘event’ that had happened in the city. The story was, that there was near panic in part of Juba, because a woman had reportedly turned into a snake. How this was supposed to have happened and why, I don’t know, but the fact was there that in addition to the panic, there were apparently a large number of people that came out to see the snake woman. Ridiculous we would say. To add to it, we’d probably go on to say that it was simple-minded people believing in superstition, if we were to speak out loud what was going on within our heads before we remembered it’s not politically correct to pass judgement on what anyone believes.

Now let me tell you another story. The same year, there was a semi-homeless man that I would run into frequently as I’d walk my dog in my hometown. I would occasionally speak to him, and got to know him a little. One day, I saw that he had a patch over one of his eyes. I asked him what had happened. He said that his retina had detached, and his doctor told him he was losing his vision. I asked him if I could pray for him, and he agreed. I prayed that God would restore his vision to him and heal his eye, and we both went on our way. About a week later, I saw him again, and he was no longer wearing the patch on his eye and could see out of it.  I asked him about his eye, and his response was, “My doctor says he misdiagnosed it.”

One culture believes in all things spiritual, the other believes in nothing spiritual. While faith is the evidence of things unseen, what do you call it when you see something with your own eyes and still manage to rationalize it away? We in the supposedly Christian west write off all things spiritual as superstition or the figments of simple minds.  The fact is, that in my experience, it’s only in the caucasian west that we manage to convince ourselves that all things spiritual are such figments of a desperate imagination.

Go to Africa, and you’ll find that even the educated believe not only that God is able, but that he WILL intercede if we pray and act on the authority given to us in the Holy Spirit. Most of the book of Acts, and a good bit of 1st Corinthians deals with the subject of spiritual gifts. Jesus says in the gospel of John, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

“Greater things than these” are the words used. So as Christians, do we believe this, and if not, why not?  I’ve seen things that would blow the minds of such deniers. We don’t believe, because we don’t want to believe. We would have to live differently. We would have to take God at his word on a lot of things we currently ignore. I hear the question a lot, “How do you know which religion is correct?”  When an entire Muslim family in Ethiopia is instantly and miraculously healed, they know what is correct.

When a doctor tells a man he is going to lose his vision, the doctor has to be pretty sure about his diagnosis. When I see a man’s vision restored anyway, I know what’s correct.

If we profess to be Christians, it seems to me that there is the choice to take the whole package or nothing at all. Why would we want to follow Christ if what he said was a lie?  There’s any number of liars I’m free to follow, and most of them don’t require such things as abasing the human nature and pride, or putting others before yourself, or any of the other myriad of unpalatable things Christians are called to do but rarely do. In fact, most of them tell you to follow your heart and do what feels good. The book of Proverbs speaks directly to this and says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” On the other side of things, if everything Jesus said is true, then why WOULDN’T we want to follow him? Yes, it requires a lot of you, but it’s so much better a way than the half-hearted, half-believing version of following that the church generally does now in America. Jesus says in Matthew 10, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”  That is the version of following Christ that I want.

A woman who received her sight back after two years of blindness while I was in Ethiopia.
A woman who received her sight back after two years of blindness while I was in Ethiopia.

The Turd That Hopped.

I was in Juba, South Sudan. Juba can be called Africa’s equivalent of a wild-west town. It’s pretty rough. People come there hoping for a better life, but with that comes a lot of crime and violence. Very few of the roads are paved, and no grass grows in the dry dirt, especially in February, when there’s no rain and the temperature hovers around 42 degrees celsius during the day. There’s no electricity, no central water, and no sanitation. The last part of that is the start of my story.

If you’ve ever been to Africa, you’re familiar with the squatty-potty. Essentially you have an elongated hole in the floor that drops to a pit; hopefully a deep one. Since there is no running water, after you do your business, you walk outside and fill a bucket with water that comes from a water tank that gets filled periodically with water trucked in from the Nile. It’s no good for drinking, but it’ll do for flushing.

One night we were staying in the compound in Juba. It was the middle of the night, so the generator had already been shut off, and the only light came from a headlamp, if you had one. A friend of mine got up to use the bathroom. As he entered the stall for the squatty, his headlamp landed on a pile of unmentionable on the floor of the bathroom. He was a bit annoyed that someone would have the lack of decency necessary to miss the hole completely and leave it there for the next person. What you have to realize is that this friend is in his sixties, with eyes in their sixties to go along.  As he went to kick the unmentionable into the hole with his shoe, the turd hopped toward him.  I heard a yell, and immediately suspected what actually happened. One of the large frogs that like to use the bathroom to stay out of the blazing heat had made its acquaintance with my friend.

For other antics of South Sudan’s frogs, check the blog post, https://southsudantraveler.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/check-your-shoes/

The hopping turd.
The hopping turd.