I am now back in Yei after ten days on the road north. There is sort of a semi-truce between the North and the South right now, meaning that there should be no more bombings or deaths or attacks. But, a week before I went north toward the northern border of South Sudan a village was bombed directly north of Aweil. Aweil is only about a couple hours drive from North Sudan, the area of Darfur. The people in the northern areas of South Sudan are really suffering. Everywhere I went I was taken aback at the change from just a year ago. The markets are almost bare because the roads north have been closed, therefore no traders are coming across as they have been threatened with instant death by gunshot if even attempting to come south. All things now can only come from Uganda. This has caused a drastic increase in market prices because the border crossings are charging a lot of money and all the way up to the north there are police checkpoints who then charge a “road tax”. By the time the traders make it to Aweil, well the rest is history.
An example, one single orange or apple costs $1.00. Gas is at an all time high of $11.37 per gallon. And the list goes on. The people are severely suffering because they can’t grow sugar cane or potatoes or many things during the dry seasons and they have to pay these market prices or die or beg. I have never experienced the extent of begging by both adults and children in all of Africa as I did in my week in Aweil. It almost consumed me to the point where I feared making eye contact with people as they might ask me for money. One day I was taking a public minivan bus from Akuem to Aweil, about a half hour journey, and the entire time I sat in the van waiting for it to fill up so we could go (about a half hour), people were knocking on the window, literally coming on the bus to put their hands in my face with their non-stop questioning for money. I really, really wanted to cry. I could say nothing because no matter what I said, they had their need. And so I would shake my head and look straight ahead, sometimes even covering my face with a book so they would leave me alone.
Let me begin at the beginning of my story as you have this picture in mind concerning the poor. There was a team of four originally who were to go north to Aweil. Myself, two Americans and one of our young men. The morning of the trip I received a call from Juba City informing me that there was no seat available on the plane for the young man. We were down to three. I walked to the tent of the Americans and told them we were leaving in one hour because the schedule just changed as our ride was leaving three hours early. They told me that the American man was really sick. We decided to medicate him and go ahead praying he would recover as we journied. By the time we arrived in Juba five hours later he was diagnosed with severe malaria and had to get daily injections for five days to kill it. It is UNHEARD of to have malaria in just two days in the country!! It just doesn’t happen. So they had to stay behind to continue treatment. We were also told there wasn’t a room available for me at the hotel that I reserved a month in advance in person, so I camped on a concrete pad in my tent, sleeping on the concrete floor all night. I knew all of this was the work of the devil or, I was always supposed to go north alone. I went on alone. I had peace.
One of the great things about going alone was that I could now stay in a hotel and not have to rough it in a tent! Yes! My first day on the ground in Aweil, I walked around the town to observe and watch. Mainly I wanted to watch the street boys before they knew who I was. I did greet them with a handshake as I walked around. This was very new to them because no one greets them, they are just a part of the environment. As I walked around I noticed that many, many of the people wore tattered clothes or clothes that were faded and old. Again, the market prices… In Yei, down south, when people go to market, they bathe and put fresh lotion on themselves and they present a very clean and shiny bright appearance. In Aweil, everyone looks dull and covered in a film of dust. The one word I use over and over again to describe Aweil is “hard”. It’s a hard place, a very hard place. And dirty.
That first afternoon after about two hours of observing I walked up to a group of fifteen or so boys and started talking to them. One of them spoke fairly decent English so he helped me translate. I asked if they remembered me from last year when I was here and we fed them bread those three days. Some of them did. And I recognized some of the faces. I then told them to wait where they were and I went to get some bread. I came right back around the corner and they all crowded around and I tried so hard to get them to not grab and push and pull but to no avail. That first feeding was in fact a frenzy. My hand was still stuck in the giant bread bag as they all grabbed it and tore at it trying to get their piece. I almost fell on top of the pile but managed to get my hand out. I laughed with them and they smiled and laughed with me. The next day I learned the Dinka word for “line”, as in form a line.
Each day I fed anywhere from 60 to 130 boys two pieces of this really good flat bread each. I spent most of my days in the market looking for them and talking with them. Each day as soon as I hit the market, they would come in droves to hold my hand and walk with me and talk with me. I really felt like the pied piper – hahaha! It was on the second day that I was finding the sick ones, the ones sleeping on the side of the road in the dirt as people walked by with nary a glance. I would feel their heads and give them malaria pills and asprin. The pills are a three day treatment process. That first day one of the boys was so sick that he laid in the same spot the entire day. I came back three times to bring him bread and juice and more asprin. One time as I caressed his face and prayed for him, tears started rolling down his cheek and I almost cried my eyes out. I prayed for every single sick child I found and I treated them all. I was busy, busy each day with these boys. They have captured my heart.
They are wild and mischievous and joyful and pure boy! They were coming to love me and trust me in that short time I had with them. I told them what my plans were and that I would be back and they were so happy, asking me each day if I was coming back to live there. I did come up with a better system of handing out the bread. I would have them line up along the bakery wall and as I handed them each their two pieces they would get nudged along to make way for the next. There was still some pushing and jostling but it was easier for me to say “sup” (line) before handing out any more. I thanked the Ethiopian baker so much for putting up with all the hoopla each day. He was a good sport about it all. He might have been glad when I left – hehe.
I did visit many NGO compounds to gather information. I visited the World Food Program, the United Nations various aid compounds, Samaritan’s Purse, a few government offices and some churches. The second day I was there I went to see a compound that our Iris pastor found for me. I hadn’t told a single person what I was praying for. I just told this pastor that I needed a place to live that was not too small and nothing too big. When he took me there on Saturday I had to fight to contain my excitement until we could hear the deal. It was EXACTLY what I had asked God for, EXACTLY. I asked for two buildings, a latrine and bathing area, and a borehole just outside of my compound but not so close as to have a loud and long line disturbing me. God did one better. The borehole was just outside the back of my compound and both days I visited, not a single person in line! I tasted the water and it tasted better than ours in Yei. I could actually drink this water it was so clean! The compound is not hooked up for electric so I will have to install a solar system, which is fairly easy to do. And when the man told me the rent I had to ask three times to confirm I understood him correctly. It was so cheap for Aweil. Only 800 Sudanese Pounds per month! That is about $180.00 a month, cheaper than where I am currently staying in Yei. I am pretty sure that I have mentioned many times that us missionaries don’t live here for free. We all pull our weight and pay our way. We don’t eat the children’s bread persay. So, we actually pay base fees and such. Anyway, I was so excited about the deal but I didn’t let on as I told the man I would think about it and get back to him before I left.
Now, in South Sudan when you arrange for a price on anything, if you don’t get it in writing, it usually changes by the time you make the actual deal, and not in your favor for sure. I met with this man five days later after I had typed a contract up leaving the amounts blank. I told him how it was so God and that I knew I was supposed to live there. When we got ready to sign the contract he didn’t change a thing, sticking to the original agreed upon price! He never even tried to change the price. And he is going to hold it for me until I arrive in February. I gave him a nice deposit to hold it, which was my offer, and we were both satisfied with the arrangement. Come to find out he is the Minister of Finance in Aweil and his wife goes to the Iris church! Hahaha! The favor of God is so rich upon me and what He wants to do in Aweil. His favor goes before me and follows me everywhere I go, knocking me down even! I am emotional even as I type this email back here in Yei. What an incredible journey He takes us on when we let Him be the tour guide.
The Iris church was planted last year by one of the pastors who came to our Revival School in Yei last year. He has a congregation now of almost 200 people, most of them Dinka tribe from Darfur. They are living in a refugee camp there in Aweil. Most of their homes are made of grass and thatch as is the church. It is huge! They were having to cancel church whenever it rained because the roof couldn’t keep out rain, not even a light rain. It is loosely woven thatch. On my last day in Aweil I surprised Pastor James Marial Majok Makak with two humongous tarps that completely covered the roof. Thanks to those of you who support what I do here in South Sudan, this church will not have to close its doors on Sunday again!
I also bought the street boys a soccer ball on my last day. It rained so much that day that I feared for my flight next day of not being able to land in all the muck and mud. These boys were shocked I think that I got them the ball but very excited. As we walked down the street to go to the fields, more and more boys came running and laughing excitedly. People stopped what they were doing and watched and smiled as we walked on. Regular boys would comment that these cheeky boys had a soccer ball! They joined us as we walked to see what was to happen next. After much bickering and a little pushing and shoving, these straggly boys formed two teams and the fist kick of the ball brought amazing white teethed smiles to dirty little faces as they ran through that mud and water and played with all their hearts. I cheered them on and had to hold back tears as I watched them play like any other boys would play. I saw their future.
Many of the boys still “huff” glue from a water bottle and even one I saw chewing on a gas soaked rag. Many of them were smoking, some as young as eight years old was a common sight. I talked to the local school headmaster and found some encouraging news. In Aweil there is a government school for those who cannot afford the steep school fees. The government pays the teachers so the teacher pay is not contingent upon school fees. Each child only has to pay $1.00 a year to go. Uniforms are about $7. I think I will be sending quite a few of these boys to school.
I did find that since Aweil is so far north, that there is a shortage of medications in the local market. When I do move up there I will have to really stock up on children’s anti malarial pills and Tylenol and all that first aid stuff. Malaria is still the biggest killer in Africa, along with starvation and death to mothers and children during childbirth.
This brings me to Moses, our little guy here in Yei that came to us the day before I left for Aweil. He is 18 months old and only weighs 13 pounds! If we hadn’t of taken him he would surely have died. Even our visiting doctor said that she has seen babies healthier than Moses die and was surprised that he was even still alive. He was so malnourished, and still is, that all of his skin is peeling off in big sheets and flakes. His hands and feet are swollen and he is only allowed right now to drink a special porridge that we have made of powdered milk, sugar and oil. Thank God that we have a doctor who is staying with us from Australia and has this whole thing under control and even better that Moses likes the milk concoction. This morning I took him to church and got him to smile for the first time. How? I just started kissing his little cheeks. Soon he was smiling just a teensy bit. And tonight when he was crying, I reached my hands to him and he reached for me and immediately stopped crying. I think we like each other.