Friday, August 27, 2010

A week of visiting villages

As we finish our first week in Yei, we are having a catch-up day at our new home at the UMCOR guest house with the Hankins. It has been a BUSY week, as the four of us (Hankins and Hodges) have visited one to two rural churches a day in our effort to eventually visit all 17 as soon as possible. On the way, we are carefully studying the scenery, trying to identify trees, buildings and figure out what people are doing or selling as we pass to better understand the life here. The local Assistant District Superintendent, Pastor Isaac Sebit, travels with us to interpret, and patiently answers our many questions. Each community of course is a bit different, but with very similar needs, as all are in poverty, in remote areas where roads are sometimes impassable, or too far from Yei (where there are services and markets) for them to access given their mode of transportation (mostly walking, carrying things on their heads; there are some bicycles and a few motorcycles on the roads; almost all 4-wheel vehicles are owned by service organizations). The tiredness we feel at the end of the day I think will ease as we adjust to our new life. Differences in the visits are marked by which chorus of “welcome visitor” is sung by the children and by what their presentation is composed of; but more so by the things that happen on the side. There are always people at these rural locations who need a ride back to Yei for medical treatment or other purposes. One trip was especially organized to bring one of the widows of the church for a vital visit to the clinic. On another, we were stopped by someone on the road to carry a limp woman with severe anemia; there are no ambulances and this woman was too weak to ride even a motorcycle.

The purpose of the visits is to let each church met us and to have an introduction to what we hope to do. We also visit the recently dug bore holes (wells with hand pumps) with all the people and have a blessing prayer. This is the clean water for the community, and they report a reduction in disease, plus do not have to walk as far to carry water home. Each church is also used as a “Nursery School” which is preschool and Kindergarten; education which is not provided by other schools in their areas. Villages have Primary School, and students must go to Yei traveling daily or as a boarding school for High School which is one year past our high school. PTA’s and School Committees are included in the government outline for schools, but some do not have these. We heard of Nursery Schools with attendance as much as three hundred. For the most part, teachers are not paid, as parents do not have money, and the United Methodist Church (UMC) is encouraging people to plant an extra row of food for the teachers, as well as one for the pastors as they are mostly unpaid as well. Greeting visitors is of high value here, so the children form a chorus to sing a welcoming song, and sometimes process with a slow dance into the church to form a “parade”. (We are working on posting short video clips on You Tube. Also, check the photos we put on Facebook, and click on photos to enlarge and pass mouse over them for names, and note the descriptions). Several classes meet under open sided thatched church/school, with overflow under the trees. Holston Conference is providing 2 blackboards each, and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) will bring each child a notebook, pencils, etc.

The chiefs of the area also come to our meeting (one was a woman) as well as elders of the community and church, church members, parents with babies and little ones. While it is our first visit, it is also a second or more visit from Rev. Boo Hankins (the District Superintendent provided for East Africa Annual Conference by Holston Conference, TN to help support and organize the churches) and his wife, Rev. Phyllis Hankins. We tell our story of coming here, explain how we hope to learn about their problems, and their way of life and work together for solutions. They nod at this. We also say we want to be called brother and sister, rather than the honorific “Mother” or “Father” and they clap at this. We emphasize how patience is needed to make lasting, long term solutions. Then anyone who wants to speak is invited, starting with the most honored chiefs, then the elders, the teachers, parents. It is a very inclusive, open meeting. We are welcomed warmly and given tea or simple lunch of just rice with salt, or rice with meat and sauce. The food is passed as far as it goes. They are hopeful for improvements in their situation.

We note common themes among the priority needs mentioned during the inevitable “report time”: they would like more permanent buildings to last and shelter school kids and church attenders from the rain, they would like teacher remuneration, teacher training, and teaching materials (there are no textbooks, sometimes no notebooks, etc. etc.) They want seeds, agricultural training, and implements (hoes, axes, machetes to cut the brush and small trees.) Right now during the wet season, snails are eating all the crops and children are getting sick and dying. They all ask for grinding mills as it is too far for most to take their millet to the mill; also their grinding stones break and put particles into the meal and the children get sick. Access to market is a great need (in 2007 there was an agricultural project to raise millet, sesame seeds etc. but it was too far for them to carry the grain on their heads to the market area.) The “road” to Yondoru UMC, several miles off the terribly rutted main road, had water filled holes the whole width so that even something like a hand pulled garden cart could not get through. Women are interested in selling embroidery, but again money for materials and access to market is a problem.

They report disease has been reduced since the bore holes (deep wells) have been drilled and provide them with clean water, but we did not notice pit latrines; worms were not mentioned but are a common problem. One headwoman mentioned the problem of low birth weight babies and danger to young babies and mothers. All mentioned lack of adequate medicines at area government clinics (if there are any) and difficulty accessing health care in Yei. Money for transport, fees and medicines is also an issue. Malaria is not mentioned everywhere, though not all have bed nets and mosquitos are out. People can become ill quickly and die before they can get medicine. I see that the babies are breastfeeding, but many of the little ones and a few adults have red hair, indicating lack of protein. There are orphans among the children. The most impoverished are two churches in an area where the Lord’s Resistance Army has destroyed their homes and taken everything they had. Now the military has a camp there to help protect. On the positive Boo notes that several churches last year met under trees, and this year they have thatched huts with rough log benches for church/school. They will soon all have bore holes. Some of the schools are very new. Some are more organized with PTA’s and maybe a School Committee. Some of the reports are given English!! Selfishly, it will come in very handy to have one or more English speakers in each church or village when we return to do trainings and planning.

We were impressed that people, especially the chiefs and leaders, have an in depth understanding and analysis of the problems of their village and are focused on the long-range goal of developing a better life for their children. Their group process is organized and inclusive. Women are involved, though only sometimes in leadership positions. This are all very encouraging!! The village folks we’ve met make it clear that t is of great importance to them that we are here at all; that help is coming out to try to reach them. Often it is mentioned that the different colors of our skin is not important. Diantha will hold a training Sept. 18 for the women on health and nutrition. Steve has immediately begun researching solutions to the need of reducing snails and increasing grinding mills.

A welcome song sung by the children in one church was “We are the future of Sudan.” They sang it like they believed it! This is also a common theme, that we must work for improvements for the sake of the children. The needs now are great, but these people have made it through even tougher times. The children are bright eyed, love to sing, and also bring joy to our hearts.

One of our highlights was one church where they practiced the custom of bringing a young child before the respected visitors and elders to pose a riddle (spoken in English no less). “I love my mother and my mother loves me. I strike my mother and my mother kills me. What am I?” We were given 5 minutes to come up with the answer, which of course we could not (the answer was a matchbox), so had to pay the forfeit. Fortunately we had some gum and peanuts/M&M’s in the jeep to give them as a reward for their cleverness, and Phyllis taught them a song with motions also as a reward. We’ll learn to carry treats in the future!

We are appreciative of these things: love and support from family and friends, the weather which is cooler than Tennessee, with less humidity and more breeze (high has been 85 in the shade with some cloud cover, rain every several days), the beauty of the air, grasses, trees, sky, the rural feel of south Sudan even in Yei which is 250,000, and the people here who greet us with thanksgiving and open arms. We cannot forget the Hankins who have taken us into their home in the UMCOR Guest House, and the Landcruiser which toils under Boo’s skilled hands to bounce over bumps and down pot holes and plow through water filled holes several feet deep (I call the jeep a water buffalo) and though we have come close we have not become stuck. The mosquitoes are omnipresent at night so we shut ourselves inside from the evening to morning biting time. I call the occasional ones that slip inside the house “Mr. Lurkey” as they lurk around damp drains and clothing, but we have successfully eliminated several and have no mosquito bites yet. A small thing, yet we give thanks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First week in Africa

Sunday, August 15
The week before we leave for Africa has been one of disinvestment. The phone broke, and we bought a $13 replacement phone at the drug store. Then just after getting the muffler and side mirror fixed, the car broke down and we were told it needs a new engine. We sold it for parts. The same week we met with the people who came from Florida to discuss buying our house; even though they ended up deciding not to buy it right now, Diantha and I went through the emotional process of letting go the house we built and raised our kids in for 19 years. When I mentioned at work how much was breaking down all at once, one woman immediately replied that the devil was trying to disrupt our lives. But I that's not the way I see it. For several years I have been pondering Jesus' repeated reminder that if anyone would follow him, they must “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me:” and now I finally feel these words taking shape inside me. I have by no means come close to selling all or denying all, but its the furthest I've ever gone.

Monday, August 16
A dozen Christian friends from as far away as Chattanooga, Greeneville and Kingsport drive several hours and gather at the airport in Alcoa to send Diantha and I off. At my request we form a circle and each friend gives us a hope they have for Sudan that we can take with us: lasting peace, courage and joy, a home for orphans, healing and wholeness out of brokenness. When its my turn, I say my hope is that the people of Sudan have patience to work at the long hard task of rebuilding their lives and nation, and patience to keep choosing this path rather than violence. At the end we pray for all these hopes to be fulfilled.

Tuesday, August 17
Arriving at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda we spot the man with the sign for the Fairway Hotel here the staff at East Africa Annual Conference has arranged for us to stay. It turns out the promised hotel shuttle has left some time ago with a group from an earlier flight, so hotel guy Abdul has contracted with a private van-taxi to drive us the 40 miles to our hotel in Kampala. We load the bags in the van, and Abdul disappears! As the young driver pulls out of the airport, I realize we are totally at the mercy of someone with whom we have no sense of accountability, in a place totally new and strange to us. Suddenly I feel much more vulnerable than I have on the whole trip so far and I'm pushed further than ever to trust God for protection. I pray.

Wednesday, August 18
We have an amazingly good first night sleep and get up in time to meet Robert Kisubi who takes us to our appointment with Bishop Daniel Wandabula at East Africa Annual Conference. Bishop brings in 4 staff and 2 District Superintendents, we all introduce ourselves, then he gives us a quick history of EAAC. When we're asked to make remarks, we share our vision for mission service in Sudan emphasizing a grassroots planning process ineach church and village out of which projects in health, agriculture, microenterprise will come. We talk about the importance of integrating literacy into all these projects, of working collaboratively with other missions, NGOs, and government groups. The strength with which the Bishop and staff affirm this vision amazes us. We ask for patience since this longer-range approach will take time to bring results, and they quickly agree. Hallelujah! Then we go to get our money changed, buy cell phones, and even have time to check out the International Hospital.

Thursday, August 19
The driver sent by EACC is a little late, but we still get all our planned shopping done in a half day! We are extremely grateful that we've had several conversations with Boo and Phyllis Hankins, already in Sudan, about what is most important to buy in Kampala and where to get it. We take the driver to lunch back at the hotel cafe, and repack our bags because we can only take two carry-on items and a 22 pound checked bag on the small Eagle Air plane to Yei. Then the driver takes us to the EAAC offices again to leave 4 big suitcases and the stuff we've just bought, including a two-burner gas hot top to cook on, a printer for our computer, and 2 pillows to be brought later in September on the UMCOR truck that will bring furnishings for the Hankins' new house. After having worked hard at getting rid of so many possessions as we left home that we should have divested long ago, it feels funny to both of us to be buying things for our new (rented) home in Sudan; but we've planned carefully to get the minimum stuff needed to enable us to carry on our missionary service.

Friday, August 20
It's Diantha's 58th birthday, and things have gone so smoothly we have nothing we have to get done today! Anne Travis has emailed that we should rest while we are in Kampala, and this day we can. We sleep in a little, have a late breakfast, then go to the desk to ask about walking to a museum we have heard is nearby. The desk clerks all urge us to take a taxi, saying walking is too dangerous; after the last two days being driven around Kampala I believe them. As one of the desk clerks, a young woman, walks us down to taxi stand at the gate, she complements Diantha on dressing modestly like an African woman, perhaps an unspoken contrast to the tank-topped Italian tourists who clogged the lobby this morning. Diantha tells her that our daughter made the dress she is wearing, and the young woman is surprised we have a daughter old enough to make such a beautiful dress. The clerk is more surprised when Diantha tells her how old she is and how long we've been married, and she comments that it must be a happy marriage from the way she's seen us interact over several days. It strikes me how much we witness without realizing it, by the way we act in parts of our lives we don't think about as the witness parts.

Saturday, August 21
We rise at 2:15 am because the hotel staff insist we have to get to the Entebbe airport 3 hours before the 7:00 am time we have been told to show up at the gate. The reason, they say, is that following the bombing of the soccer club in Kampala several weeks ago, security has been much tighter and it takes longer to go through security at the airport. So the hotel van races through abandoned streets in the wee hours, we breeze through security, and sit for three hours waiting for the ticket counter to open. Its the only time the people we've been relying on in Uganda have been wrong, so we forgive them though we can't really make up the sleep on the hard plastic chairs of the waiting room. Right at 7 am, the missionaries from the UK John and Poppy Spens walk into the airport and I'm delighted to introduce them to Diantha. Poppy is carrying a portable ultrasound machine back to the Martha Clinic in Yei, and she and Diantha immediately begin talking about health care matters while John and I find we share a strong interest in getting the various mission efforts in Yei to collaborate in more concrete ways. As we settle into the little 19-passenger plane, Diantha turns to me and says, “There's no turning back now.” Actually, there hasn't been for some time, but it really sinks in then. I make sure she sits by a window, and she notices the difference in the abundant, organized farms of Uganda and the scarce cultivation when we cross into Sudan. The plane's smooth landing amazes her too, and then we get out onto the red maram clay landing strip and hug Boo and Phyllis.

After Boo and Phyllis have taken us from the airport to the UMCOR guest house where they and we will stay, we finally have an hour or so to make up a little sleep. Then at 2:00 pm we splash water on our face and walk to the new little meeting hut built in front of the guest house where the Sudanese United Methodist pastors have begun to gather. Eventually 14 of the 16 show up, a good turnout, for what we realize is a reception to welcome us! We speak briefly about our hopes and plans for mission service, and then one by one most of the pastors speak, some briefly and some at length and some practically preaching a whole sermon. They have been praying for us to come, they are joyful that we are here, they are thankful that the Church has sent us to help them, they have great hopes and expectations for the impact we can have. I'm actually kind of scared (I find out later Diantha is too) by the immensity of their expectations. As the hour and a half of sharing and prayer ends, I tell them that there is so much to do that I am aware it impossible for us to do it out of our own abilities; BUT that I know three things: with God all things are possible; that needed change will happen as we are partners with each other, each teaching the other what we know; and that though I don't completely understand it, I believe God has a great purpose for Sudan of which we are all together a part.

The more I reflect on this welcome, the more I am blown away by the first step of trust the pastors have placed in us. Thank you, God.

Sunday, August 22
I've been looking forward to worship at Yei United Methodist Church, especially because it will be Diantha's first time to worship in a Sudanese church. Sure enough, I watch her enjoyment build to ecstasy when at the first “hot song” the children rush up to grab her hand and dance, jumping up and down with her. In fact, she has several children holding each of her hands. I get teary when I see her glowing face, and realize she is taking the time to look into the face of each child dancing with her. I'm seeing Jesus taking the time for each little child.