One night in South Sudan

October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

squarepromo_3-2A year and a few months ago, I visited South Sudan with the Dallas-based microfinance nonprofit Seed Effect.

I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!

***

When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.

South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.

“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”

I never know quite how to respond to these questions.

After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.

When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.

Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.

Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.

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Other times, I talk about the war.

It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.

Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.

Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”

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Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.

And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.

*

I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.

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We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.

We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.

Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.

We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.

As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.

Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.

We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.

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Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.

By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.

I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.

The bus pulled to a stop.

We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.

Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.

We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.

Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.

My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?

I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.

As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.

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More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.

Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?

But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.

The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.

The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.

There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.

So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.

I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.

Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.

Scaring us was a way to pass the time.

*

When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.

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Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.

Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.

The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.

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Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.

I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.

After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.

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