The first morning in Sudan started with the trusty crowing of Coq au Vin. No, though some of us might have fantasized about it, he never ended up as our supper.
Several of Dr. Luka’s women relatives had already delivered a bucket of water to the cement room where we can rinse down. They have a well at the compound, and it takes some serious pumping to get the water up. Pilates, Sudan style. Although it was of great convenience to have this well near by, I wondered what supplies might be needed to rig a check valve in order to keep the thing primed. It’s on my list of things to do if I ever am lucky enough to get there again.
There is a nice big thermos of boiling hot water set on our table, with Kenyan tea and sugar. The granola bars and trail mix supplies are cracked open, and we fuel up for our trip today and because you have to take your malaria pill on a full stomach.
Also, just fyi, you have to remember to keep hydrating with lots of water that must include one (but just one) equivalent of a bottle of Gatorade every day.
We pile into the cars and head off for a two and a half hour drive through the countryside towards the day’s destination. This is a dusty, bumpy beautiful road. We dodge tree stumps. We wait for the occasional herd of cattle to mosey on out of the way. The farther we go, the more the people we encounter look at us like we are aliens from another planet, landed in their midst in space ships. And yes, that’s just what we are. But they have no fear, and they instill no fear. They are delighted to see us. We drive through a market place. There is an open hut here with a table filled with used engine parts, a hut there with a table covered with slightly used flip flops, and what’s this!!! A generator fired cooler with Cold Coca Cola!!!
The Dinka word for “hello” sounds something like “Shebop”, which inspires me to sing to them “Shebop Shebop Shebop, my baby”. They join in! They clap along! They are delighted and delightful. These are some soulful people with not much more than the hands they can clap with. They know how to use them.
Along the way we pass women walking with water jugs on their heads. We pass many homesteads; with the grass hut, the twig fence, the food storage structure on stilts, the sandy yard with a goat or two, and children who run towards our caravan. I saw a woman in the shade working with a tool that looked something like a butter churn; a mortar and pestle in which she was pounding grain.
We’re heading towards a way station, an outpost. When we arrive there, we’re at a large clearing. There is a tree. Under this tree sit a little over a hundred people. Grown men and women, and children. They have come to this spot after walking for 8 days. These outposts are set up along their way, their way back home. These are all people who have just been bought out of slavery. During the civil war with the North, these and thousands of other South Sudanese people had been kidnapped and brought to North Sudan as slaves. They have seen murder and mayhem the likes of which we dare not imagine. The folks at Christian Solidarity International (CSI), with the help of very brave N Sudanese retrievers who help gather these people, pay for their freedom. I felt like we were at a stop on the Underground Railroad, and that any one of these faces could be a family member of Harriet Tubman. Here is a short video of the scene that I took with my phone:
They are quiet and a lot of them start the day with their faces covered. As time goes on the coverings peel away. They are encouraged to tell their stories, and if they have open wounds or other medical complaints, the Doctor and the nurse are there to help. Their names are recorded. Though this was not the case on this occasion, usually elders from their home territories meet them at one of these stations, and take them home. Sometimes family members are there to meet them too.
In the shadows stands a mysterious man, wrapped in white with his face completely covered. This, I soon realize, is the “conductor.”
Apparently over a hundred thousand people were kidnapped during the civil war, and now tens of thousands have been and are being helped home.
They are each given a “Sack of Hope”. In it are mosquito net, bowl, mat …. A celebration starts up. A truck load of sorghum is dumped on a cloth on the ground. I take a bowl and fill it to overflowing and pour it into the bowl of a waiting free man. I’m about to move on when I get a gentle tap on my hand from this fellow. I have left about a quarter of a cup of sorghum grain in my bowl, and he knows it’s value. I empty my bowl completely into his.
This is an eye opener for me.
One of us has brought balloons. With the help of a balloon pump, the first of many gets blown up. So much air goes in that the balloon breaks away from the pump and flies off with a whistle into the air. The children squeal with delight and go chasing after it. Their laughter is very close to the surface. The joy that they can get out of something so simple is endearing and heart breaking at the same time.
It is driven home over and over that we have so much and we take it so for granted.
On the drive home there is lots to contemplate. The sun has set and there are little fires burning in every family courtyard. Perhaps it’s sorghum, ground today, cooking in the pot.
Thanks to Tony Sayegh for the use of his photos in this post.
Tomorrow is another day in Sudan. I start working with my beautiful Heart Women. Shebop shebop shebop my baby!
Thank you for spending time with me and this story. More later!