Friday, May 22, 2009

Q&A with 7th Graders in Georgia

My cousin Hayley’s 7th grade advanced social studies class at West Side Magnet School in LaGrange, Georgia sent me questions about life in Sudan. Some of our conversation is included below. If anyone has more questions, you can leave a comment on this post, and I’ll answer.

”What food do you eat?”
Stew, roasted meat (goat or cow), greens, rice, stiff porridge of flour, bread, beans, fruit, and vegetables.

”What is the weather like in the place you're at?”
In Juba it is hot all the time 80-100 degrees. The rainy season started in April, and we get a good storm a couple times a week. The rain will last until November here in Juba. Climates vary tremendously across Sudan. With tropical forest, grass land, mountains, the largest swamp in the world, and desert.

“What are the conditions for people?”
In south Sudan the situation is dire for many people. Returning refugees do not have access to the food and water they need. Education and health care facilities are rare and poorly staffed when they exist. Maternal and child mortality are some of the highest rates in the world. Hunger is widespread.

”What is your job, specifically, in Sudan?”
I work for the Episcopal Church of Sudan, which is the largest Christian denomination here. I work for the provincial office, which is the office of the Archbishop for all of Sudan (north and south). I am a missionary of the Episcopal Church USA, assigned here to work for the Archbishop at his request. I am an agriculturalist, and so my job is to start an agriculture department for the church. I have been helping in the planning process for larger scale food production projects, and I assist the regional bishops with training and advising for their agriculture programs. I do workshops with subsistence farmers and pastors, teaching them improved farming techniques, that allow them to increase their food production without having to purchase expensive inputs (sustainable techniques like composting, mulching, adjusting plant density, etc). I spend most of my time traveling in the south to the rural areas. When I am at home in Juba, I attend a lot of meetings, and work in the office.

”Do they have any similarities to us? If so, how?”
People everywhere are essentially the same they have the same concerns: family, friends, making a living. People argue and tell jokes, they go to work, they go shopping, kids play games and make toys out of anything they can find. Soccer is the favorite sport. People go to church, sing songs… the similarities are endless. There are 5 kids in the family I live with and we don’t speak the same language, but we still play tons of games together, and laugh all the time.

”Life is obviously different there; how did you adapt?”
Its not so hard to adapt. The food is different, but good. Learning the meaning behind different sayings and how to be polite is difficult at first when you come to a new culture. What is difficult now is worrying about the future of the country and the increasing violence. But it is also hard missing my family and friends.

”Where and how do you get most of your water from?”
At home we have running water in the house. When I am traveling in areas that don’t have running water, someone goes and hauls water by the bucket from a hand-pump well, or from a river. Many diseases are spread in water, so drinking water must be boiled or purchased.

”What is your living system (daily routine?)”
When I am in Juba, I get up around 7, have tea with family I live with, drive or walk about ½ mile to the office. Where we have power, internet, printers, scanners, etc. I research on the internet, communicate with bishops and others about projects, planning (calling, meeting, writing). When I am traveling, which is more than ½ the time, it is different. We drive down dirt roads, stay in local accommodations which are usually tukls (huts), we are greeted by the people, eat, meet with bishops, tour the diocese, see agriculture projects, conduct workshops, and pray together.

”Do you know anyway that we may help?”
You can write to President Obama and to your Members of Congress and Sentors. Tell them that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan is in danger of falling apart, and the country going back to war. Remind them that the US is one of the countries that signed the agreement as a guarantor of the peace, and it is our responsibility to do something before it is too late.
You can also give money to groups working in Sudan. And you can pray for Sudan.

Special thanks to Hayley for organizing this discussion, and to she and her classmates for their concern for the people of Sudan!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hope and Fear

More than 1,000, possibly more than 2,000 people have been killed in south Sudan in tribal clashes over the last two months. It is hard to know for sure, because it doesn’t seem to be on the news. And the LRA is still killing and spreading fear throughout Western and Central Equitoria states. I have noticed that the conflict in Darfur has captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world, but people fail to realize that Darfur is part of Sudan, and if there is no peace between the north and the south, there will be no peace in Darfur. The peace today stands uncertain.

The Archbishop of Sudan, Daniel Deng Bul, sounded the alarm this month in a letter to the international community. “Arms smuggling, re-armament and incitement of tribal violence is being carried out by enemies of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement… Why is the international community allowing this violence to continue? I beseech you to act now to prevent it and protect the peace of my people.” (full text)

The Archbishop is a man of tremendous vision, and I am honored to be working for him. In his first year in office he has been working tirelessly and without pay to bring development to Sudan. But development work cannot happen in the presence of violence and insecurity. I had an agriculture workshop scheduled today, which was canceled because of insecurity in the area. Now, as the CPA is threatened, the Archbishop has become an outspoken advocate of peace. Last week, the front page of the Juba newspaper had his photo and the title, “Church sounds the alarm”. He is struggling to find the means to travel to some of these conflict torn areas to preach about peace, and reconciliation. His voice makes a difference. The Church makes a difference.

It is easy to feel hopelessness in the face of mounting uncertainty for the future of Sudan. It is easy to see only the bad things that are happening anywhere in this world. But this week, I am inspired by this leader who stands firmly with the Gospel message of peace and reconciliation. And I am honored that my presence here is helping support the programs of the Church, which bring hope.

I had my first agriculture workshop last week in the diocese of Lainya. I met with 17 pastors and lay leaders for a day-long discussion and practice. We started with a bible study on passages that talk about stewardship of the land, and a discussion. “We need tractors, tools, seeds…” this is a refrain I have heard everywhere. But this time, we used it as an opportunity to talk about what they do have, and how God might be calling them to act with what has been provided in creation around them. One thing we came up with was that they could plant a teak plantation using seeds from the wild trees, and use that for an investment for the church and the pastors. We also went out into the field to observe and practice some improved techniques. By looking and evaluating, the participants came up with 7 different benefits of mulch! Convincing people to mulch instead of burn is one of my priorities as an agriculturalist. Since we talked about what happens in both mulching and burning, and looked at the results, and connected that to what we read in the bible about learning from creation, it seems to have made an impact. It was a good and hope-filled day.

God has been moving in my heart on the subject of hope. As I sat praying a few days ago, demanding answers to my worry and longing, a single word came to me – patience. And all my questions and demands of “why” and “when” and “how,” seemed to be clouds of darkness and confusion, and at the center of it all was a dazzlingly beautiful light, that was the love of God. This seemed to be the answer to my questions… take a step back, remember what is important. I find it immensely difficult to trust God, because after all, bad things happen to good people. But this picture in my heart is a reminder. There is no truth in these questions I ask, no hope. Hope is in the love of God, everywhere and eternal.

Patience is a choice, focusing on the love of God is a choice. I have been frustrated that I don’t find these choices to be natural. It takes me whispering the words “rely on God” before I can even consider that patience is a choice! But I think this is the work of life to which we are called. We can choose whether our work is fulfilling or not, based on the choices we make every second of the day. Many of these choices are too hard, too different from our normal way of being. But we have the Holy Spirit inside us, just waiting for us to remember that we can’t do it alone.

So in spite of all that is going on, and because of it, I feel the presence of the peace which passes understanding. And I am assured that it is through our weaknesses and failings, and through the troubles and hopelessness of this world that God’s glory is revealed.

ECS Website

For more news about what's going on in the Episcopal Church of Sudan, check out the ECS website

See the Archbishop's appeal to the international community for urgent assistance in safeguarding the peace in Sudan: click here

See the planning document for the ECS Agriculture Department which I am working on establishing: click here

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Frisbees and Easter Season Thoughts

The five kids I live with and I made an important discovery today. The lid of the common laundry soap tubs, can be used as a Frisbee. Bul and Ayak, the oldest two, are quite good at playing Frisbee. The twins Achan and Angar, have recently become interested, and will catch it if it’s thrown to them at a range of about two feet. But the youngest, Nibol, puts us all to shame with her fierce bravery. She is two. She grits her teeth, and gets into her Frisbee stance. If the Frisbee is thrown low enough, she can stamp it out of the air, and she chucks it at least ten feet. She jumps up and down and claps her hands, and we all join in. The importance of the soap container discovery is that Frisbee has now become, to use the development work lingo, a locally sustainable game. And because the lid is lightweight, it means it doesn’t hurt if you hit someone with it. Since the Frisbee I brought is made of heavy plastic, and half our players are under the age of four, this is a big improvement! The kids (except Bul) don’t speak English, and I can only say a few things in Arabic, but we have found a common language in Frisbee, and funny faces, and games where someone pretends to be a crocodile or monster and eats the others. They also taught me a game much like “this little piggy” only it’s counted on fingers, and involves tickling at random intervals. Much to their pleasure, they have discovered I am extremely ticklish. Giggling is the universal language.

Today I took a trip out to one of our project sites in Panyikwara, and two of my friends, Rev. Charles and Tito came with me. I decided since we are friends, and it was Saturday, and the trip was 3 hours and more than 100 miles each way, that this officially counted as a road trip. So I described the importance of a road trip in my culture. Since the road was dirt, and full of potholes, I decided it could also be classified as off-roading. In order to complete the experience, we took the requisite goofy this-is-us-on-a-road-trip photos.

When we got to Panyikwara, I got to meet Charles’ family again, and this time I learned the names of his kids, and how to say “thank you for the delicious food” in Acholi. His youngest Odira, is the exact same age as my nephew, not quite two. I loved watching him, and realizing that my nephew has probably learned some of the same motor skills these months I’ve been away. When Charles handed him a little money, I was amazed, that he toddled off to the corner store (only 100 yards from the house), to buy a cookie. We did get down to business by discussing the salary structure the employees were proposing, and we engaged in a discussion with the county ag advisor about aide and whether people value things that are free. We also attended part of a workshop on seed production.

Charles is leaving to start seminary in Uganda tomorrow. I am happy for him, but sad for all of us who will miss him. Nearly every trip I have been on around Southern Sudan, Charles has gone too. And I have come to rely on his eternal optimism, constant laughter, and unquenchable joy. His cheerfulness seems to provoke my crankiness when I am frustrated or haven’t had lunch yet, and he has put up with me with patience and good humor. Every day, he reminds me “It’s in God’s hands.” Charles, and most of the pastors of the Episcopal Church of Sudan sacrifice so much to do the work they feel they are called to do. I am constantly humbled by Charles’ cheerful sacrificing.

There is God. This answer comes at the end of a week I have found difficult. This week I have felt more susceptible to cynical and hopeless trains of thought. The violence in Jonglei state is escalating, with more than 1,000 killed in the last two months. But violence in other areas continues too, with the LRA in Western Equitoria, and fighting over cattle raiding in several other states as well. We met more IDPs in our visit to Lainya last weekend, displaced by the LRA. I have found it hard not to focus on the question “why?” I have found it hard to believe in the peace. But into this struggling searching frame of mind, today comes the Frisbee discovery, and five giggling kids, and travels with friends.

As I sit here writing to you, my heart is full of a renewed sense of joy. Whenever I write to you I am reminded of your love and prayers which sustain me daily. I am reminded of all the things I love about my home and my diocese, all of you, and this job. And I am honored again to be entrusted to this work, to be the physical presence of the love you have for the people of Sudan. And that work I think is just as much about throwing Frisbees as it is about teaching agriculture.

God is all around us, calling to us in the beauty and wonder of humanity and creation. Some days it’s easier to see that than others. But if God is there, solidly present in hope and joy and the peace which passes understanding, even in the homeless shelter in Atascadero, and in post-Katrina Mississippi, and in impoverished Central American villages, and in post-war Liberia, and in conflict-ridden Sudan, then surely God is everywhere, and God’s love can redeem it all. We are not living in a world where evil and death and hopelessness get the final word. We are living in a world of Easter. Christ is risen indeed!