During the first two weeks of August, I traveled to South Sudan as a volunteer with a Christian microfinance nonprofit called Seed Effect (I wrote more about the experience here and here). Since returning to Dallas, I can’t count the number of times my family and friends have asked in amazement, “How was your trip?!”
I am glad for the question. I want to answer it. I really do. But it feels like the hardest question in the world. The experience was different than anything I ever experienced before, so profound that a passing description could never do it justice, so powerful that I’m still trying to figure out what exactly happened, what it all meant.
Usually, I wind up saying something like, “It was amazing!” and then word vomit a bunch of disjointed sentences about malaria pills causing nightmares, soldiers with AKs searching our bags, rice and beans, giant cockroaches, the guy with the bow and arrow who guarded our compound at night, and the stars, oh those beautiful stars!
Afterwards, I’m usually wishing I said something else, something that actually made sense, something that explains why a country so full of generous and faithful people could also be so violent and poor, something that explains why traveling to one of the poorest countries in the world could fill me not with doubt or despair, but a faith in God stronger than ever.
The truth is, there is no simple way to describe South Sudan or my experience there. Its political situation is complex. Its people are nuanced. My experience was colored by my own stage in life, my own desires, my own fears.
As we began making the journey home, our team leader warned us not to make any big life decisions until at least a month after the trip. In other words, don’t quit your six-figure job and buy a one-way ticket to Africa, don’t shave your head in solidarity with the South Sudanese (who often wear buzz cuts to keep their hair clean), don’t judge your friends when they want to go shopping and all you can think about are the South Sudanese children without any shoes.
I think I’m starting to understand why.
I know something big happened to me on that trip, even if I can’t explain it, even if I don’t yet know what it is. There are moments in our lives which we can (and should) recognize as special, experiences that direct our way forward, that set us in movement toward a new start. If traveling to South Sudan isn’t one of those experiences, I don’t know what is.
Sometimes, we understand their meanings in sudden flashes of light. More often, the meaning of an experience reveals itself over time, seeping up slowly to fill from within. I prefer the former (I’m impatient, after all), but the latter often means a deeper understanding that really sticks.
And so, I’ll keep sharing about the mosquito nets and the tree church and the African hymns, all the while discovering what really happened, and what it all means.
P.S. I’m still raising funds for the trip until Aug. 23! If you are or anyone you know might be interested in donating, you can visit my fundraising website.