stepping into South Sudan
Yesterday I touched down in South Sudan.
The airport in Juba is a large airstrip with tents that serve as the arrivals area, immigration and customs.
When the plane landed, I looked out the window and saw a huge crowd of people standing around our plane, with armed soldiers between us and the plane. I searched the crowd for the man who was supposed to be meeting me at the airport, and but I didn’t see him.
Breathing a prayer, I walked down the ladder to the tarmac. When my feet hit the ground, I heard women screaming, then crying, then wailing. I turned around to see an ambulance slowly pulling up to the other side of the plane. Men in medic uniforms went to the back of the ambulance and began to pull out a casket.
The crowd around the plane was a funeral procession.
Lord have mercy, I whispered.
I walked to the tent where immigration officials were searching our passports for approved visas, and stamping them with approval.
Four men associated with the non-profit I’m volunteering with found me in the line. Once my passport was stamped, the men formed a circle around me and hurriedly moved me through the crowd. I couldn’t see over their heads, I could only see their large, quick feet parting a way through the crowd. I felt like the Israelites must’ve felt when they walked through the parted Red Sea.
The men claimed my bags, put them in the back of an old Land Rover, motioned for me to climb in the back seat. "This feels familiar," I thought, thinking of the first morning in Togo when my driver and I made the 9-hour trip to the Hospital of Hope in a similar dusty, rusted Land Rover.
We drove to the compound where we’ll be staying for the first few days. The guard opened the gate, we drove through, and they showed me to my room — a small room with a wooden bed covered by a mosquito net.
We met up with the American woman who helps run the non-profit. Together we went down the street to a small cafe that sits on the banks of the Nile River.
We drank cool bottled water, watched the river flowing, enjoyed the cool breeze…and I had my first experience of being here. Being on the ground. Witnessing the beauty that exists in spite of the turmoil this country has endured.
We returned to the compound for dinner at 8 p.m. The generator wasn’t working, so the small dining room adjacent to the kitchen was pitch black, except for a small lantern on the long table where the food was set out.
There was a pan of rice and ugali, a bowl of chopped goat in red sauce, and a bowl of small fish in a cream sauce. At the end of the table was a bowl of sliced pineapple.
I fixed a plate of food and sat down at a table. Across from me was an elderly Sudanese bishop and a young Nigerian priest who’s served in South Sudan for the past 6 years.
The bishop told me he was ordained in 1964, when Sudan's first war started. Several years ago, in his travels he encountered a remote people group who had never seen a car, had never seen clothing, and had never experienced human touch. He went back, retired from his position as a bishop, and went to serve them.
“I wanted them to be touched, to be loved, so they could be fully human,” he said softly.
The priest told me of his work in a different village, where people have experienced not only war, but also a long famine.
“The famine is the reason most people have fled to the camps,” he said. “They have lived in war all their lives and they have learned to hide from the bullets,” he said. “But the bullet of hunger — that is the bullet they fear. It is merciless. It spares no one.”
We ate in silence for a while. And then I asked him the question I couldn’t help but wonder.
“Father," I asked gently. "In the midst of war and famine, what do you tell the people about God?” I wasn’t trying to antagonize him. I really wanted to know.
He took a sip of water and then said, “I tell them God is hope. You see, in your country, hope can be a philosophical thing. But when you live in these conditions, hope is tangible reality.”
He took a bite of fish, and washed it down with another sip of water.
“You see, our currency (the South Sudanese Pound) has faced 700% inflation in the past few years. It is in a freefall. But hope? Hope does not suffer depreciation or inflation. Hope is constant currency. Hope does not change. I tell people to hold onto hope with everything they have because if you don’t have hope….?”
His words hung in the hot, humid darkness.
This morning, I woke to the sound of men singing. I looked out of the small window in my room to see the elderly bishop and the young priest in white robes, sitting under a flowering tree with crosses around their necks and Bibles in their hands, singing Blessed Assurance.
This is my story
This is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
Hope is their story, hope is their song, I realized as I got ready for breakfast.
And millions of our Sudanese brothers and sisters are courageously singing along.