I think it’s time for me to be honest, because I’m 33, and when you’re 33 you tell the truth. I have also been living in South Sudan for nearly 2.5 years, with a mere 7 months to go before I leave, and I feel a certain obligation to at least try to convey my experience as honestly as possible. As opposed to what I thought my life would be like, or what others might think my life is like, here are three truths about my time in South Sudan.
What I am not doing: saving people. I am not saving Africans. There has never been a truer truth than this: I moved here because I wanted to. I wanted adventure. I wanted to learn everything I could about peace. I wanted to return to a soil so rich and alive you can hardly keep your feet from dancing. I am not here saving Africans. If anything, some of the Africans here might be saving me. Honestly, I can’t say I know what all Africans need. I have heard the voices of a few, and what they’ve said is remarkably similar to what non-Africans have said – they need food, shelter, security, education, opportunity, freedom and love. But they don’t need outsiders to provide these things. They don’t need me, you, or any other well-meaning foreigner coming here on a mission to save them*. The idea that Africans need others to save them is deeply flawed. It robs them of the one thing I think we all need: dignity.
What I am doing: digging deep. Sometimes you have to dig deep to maintain a positive attitude. Lord knows I want to maintain a positive attitude, but it’s difficult sometimes. I wanted to move here for adventure and peace and dancing, and I knew in theory South Sudan was a challenging place to be, but I never could have prepared myself for all the hot, sticky, dirty intricacies that make life so difficult here. About six months ago, I realized the extent of my exhaustion. I took everything that had built up in my head and put it down on paper, which turned out to be a pretty in depth list of all the reasons I felt so tired all the time.
Once I saw those elements, it was as if a weight had been lifted and I came into a full understanding of how important it is to learn how to cope. Fortunately, I had already been developing some habits I found helpful, and I could turn to those in a more intentional way. Wanting to be positive is not enough. Sometimes you have to dig deep to maintain a positive attitude. Over the course of my time here, I have found three things to be helpful: finding the beauty around me, practicing gratitude and fostering my own creativity. While these practices do not make those elements go away, they do ease the difficulty of dealing with them to a degree.
What I am witnessing: dazzling stars. They shine on through the darkest nights known to humankind. This is a truth I’m scared to tell. My faith in God has never been tested more than it has in the last two plus years. It has been tested on both a grand scale – around issues of war and suffering – and at a personal level – around issues of loneliness and purpose. And here’s the scariest part: I’m still working through it. I haven’t come out on the other side, knowing that a loving God is alive. But it is called faith for a reason. Faith is to believe in something you cannot see.
About a year and a half ago, I visited a village about 120 miles southwest of Juba. On the first day of the visit, I waited up as late as I could before turning in for the night because I was trying to avoid using the toilet in the middle of the night. The reason for the avoidance was that the toilet – also called a long drop in some areas of the world due to its design which is a hole in the ground that you squat or stand over and through which you drop your waste a long way – was located in a sort of outhouse separate from where I was sleeping, and well, I was in a village where it gets very dark at night and I didn’t know what might be creeping and crawling outside or in and around the toilet in the dark. My avoidance was in vain. I woke up at about 3am with a bladder on the verge of explosion. After some internal debate, I decided to be brave and make the seemingly long walk to the long drop. As soon as I stepped outside I was surprised by the most dazzling blanket of stars the sky has ever displayed. I closed the door and sat down, awestruck.
At the risk of stretching a metaphor too far, I know some people in South Sudan who remind me of those stars. They dazzle even the most distracted and unsuspecting passersby. They shine on through the darkest nights known to humankind. There are people here who have kept my faith in God afloat. They have a beauty about them that only comes through great suffering. Every single one of them has known war, loss, violence, hunger, and oppression and yet every single one of them continues to hope. They continue to smile. They continue to work toward a better life for their people. And what amazes me the most is that they continue to praise a God whom they’ve never stopped believing in. It may be true that I can’t see God but I can see these people, just as I see the stars, and I am more convinced than ever before, there must be a God.
*To be fair, there once was a time when I believed that I could help save Africans. Like I said, when you’re 33, you tell the truth.