Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On Losing Things

Before moving from Denver to Nimule Sarah and I got rid of a lot of our possessions. Our furniture, our dishes...our cat. Sarah, who used to own a women's clothing boutique, liquidated her wardrobe. I learned from the experience of watching item after item go out our front door, never to return, that as much as I'd like to believe I'm not materialistic, I had formed an attachment to an awful lot of material things, and I didn't realize it until I was watching them all go away.

But then we squeezed what was left into a few pieces of luggage and came here, and I thought, 'At least that's over. What else could we possibly give up?' but I found that I became very possessive of what few things we did have, constantly locking drawers and keeping an eye on the door to our house if it was ajar; then I found that it didn't matter. We began losing things - an iPod, a knife, other assorted knick knacks. Mostly they were things that were pretty inconsequential, but to me the knowledge that it didn't matter how much we gave up because we could still lose more was at once disheartening and liberating...but mostly disheartening. It was a constant reminder of the loss of so many small conveniences. When you lose a (fill in the blank with just about any noun) in Sudan, you can't very well just replace it.

There were certain big things I was determined not to lose or let walk away - chiefly my computer, my kindle, and my jeans. The past tense isn't appropriate here, because I'm still bound and determined not to lose those particular things.

Before long, though, I stopped caring about losing little things, accepted it as part of life, and figured we could just adapt and carry on.

And then I lost my wedding ring, and somehow I was caught off guard by just how greatly it affencted me. I saw my naked hand and knew simultaneously both that the ring was gone and that this kind of gone was the permanent kind. I turned into a whimpering child, a deflated balloon. Orphaned children saw me and took pity (they even organized to walk the path where I seemed to have lost it and scour our house from top to bottom in search of it. When that came to nothing, they began trying to form bits of whatever they could find into a suitable ring for me, again to no avail because I have fingers far too fat for a Sudanese child to conceive of).

My wedding ring is basically a $40 hunk of metal, but unlike every other possession I've ever had - whose true value only became apparent to me when the object was no longer mind - that ring was symbolic of something. It meant something to me; unlike other possessions which often construct our identities, my wedding ring always reminded me of my identity. It had a weight to it that I actually had to adjust to when I first started to wear it. It required me to adapt in the most basic and mundane human behaviors, like clapping my hands or drumming on a table out of boredom. The ring did not itself bind me to Sarah, but it was the most visible reminder of that bond.

It has been four days since I lost my ring, and I still find my thumb gravitating to the base of my ring finger seeking the shape of it. I walk the path where I lost the ring at least five times a day, and every time I find my eyes scanning the ground alongside it searching for what I know I won't find, reminding myself that the rain has probably washed it away or a goat has eaten it but still failing to convince myself to stop looking.

It's just another object, I know, but losing something that costs so little but means so much leaves me feeling so vulnerable and powerless. I begin to imagine losing not the object but the person, my worst fears playing themselves out in my mind, and before long I'm thinking, 'why on earth did we come here again?'

But in our marriage vows, Sarah said to me, "I vow to choose the opportunity to do something great over our convenience and comfort." I remember standing with her at the altar, listening to those words, and thinking, 'this is absolutely the woman I want to spend my life with.'

And our life right now is frenzied, unpredictable, exhausting, and stressful. And our marriage is regularly strained, and we often feel the acute loneliness of being so visibly different in a culture that tends to encourage conformity. And I think sometimes we probably ask ourselves if this is the kind of opportunity that we were looking for. And it's funny the things that confirm that it is: letting a seven-year-old girl fall asleep in your lap when she's sick, helping an eight-year-old boy pick out his clothes for the day, watching a ten-year-old who has never experienced rain gutters before dance under the gutter spout during a downpour, explaining the concept of parallel lines to a twelve-year-old, sitting on the veranda with a group of teenage girls who want us to sit and listen to their laughter and their songs (and eventually want us to sing songs of our own to each other, and we oblige).

There are moments when the loneliness arises from the fact that there are so many people we love with whom we want to share in these unique moments.

But for now it's the two of us, and in some sense it will always be just the two of us. Ring or no ring. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fun with fire and other good toys

Evenings are my favorite time of the day around here. The sun instead of scorching, in it’s usual style, paints the sky in the most beautiful colors in all directions here. It is a rare time when the kids are occupied and content, knowing it is too late to ask for new games or anything that must be purchased and too early for medicine or study materials. There is always a group playing football at the center of the compound just outside the office door, and a group playing games around the steps and a group gathered around the kitchen waiting for dinner. I love sitting on the steps at this time watching the sky, playing games or seeing who will win the soccer match today.

I stepped outside yesterday to take it all in when my attention was drawn to a reflection of the orange sun in a patch of grass across the compound. This reflection came in the form of our 11 year old queen bee, Kasara, and her bff, Lilly, sparing with large branches of fire while the grass lit up below them. As they were jousting their weapons of flame, about 4 of our youngest daughters were dancing and jumping in the sparks and smoke.


Just as I am about to run as fast as I can to strangle Kasara, I realize I have left a three year old in front of my computer as well as two other kids in detention with all our valuables in the office. After shooing everyone out and closing the office door I rush outside and am stopped by a truck full of men and our friend Pasquali . I politely say excuse me “I just need to stop something”. The truck full of men got a good laugh at the frantic white woman running across the compound, but I was too busy trying to remember if I learned anything about burn wounds in the first aid book I was reading earlier that day and imagining 6 year old Nonyo’s blue dress going up in flames.

This is how it went down:
Me: “Kasara! Stop what you are doing right now!”
Kasara : “We are putting out fire”
Me: “Really, cause this is how you put a fire out” as I quickly smother and stomp the branches and grass
Kasara : “We were just playing with fire” she says indignant and confused

That’s right, just playing with fire.

I will add this to the list of things our children think are perfectly good toys. This list includes aerosol cans of bug poison (most fun to try to smash open with rocks!), razor blades, sheets of plastic tied tightly around their necks and over their heads, rusty nails and rusty machetes (really anything that could cut you and give you tetanus is a wonderful toy). I have seriously taken all of these things away from our children.

Miraculously we haven’t had any children die or even that seriously injured and in my book that is a win. I have seen some toe nails ripped off, but who needs toenails anyway?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Welcome Home

When you tell 60 children who have sent their entire lives living in mud huts that they are about to move into the brand new house, the construction of which they've witnessed slowly come together over the course of five years, they will not immediately be inclined to believe you. They will, in fact, come up with all kinds of reasons that they will not be able to move into the new house.

There are no bed frames, no mattresses, no sheets, and no curtains - they will point out to you, and at the time of the pointing out they will be right. What's more striking are the things that they don't point out - all of the rooms that won't be occupied aren't yet painted, none of the hallways are, the multiple-purpose room is entirely unusable. The kids couldn't care less about those things; they know the purpose of a house: the house is to live in and sleep in, to gather in a room with your closest friends and share secrets long after you're supposed to be asleep. It's to have a place to put your action figures where they can be prominently displayed. What they know is that a house doesn't have to be perfect to be home...but it does have to have beds and mattresses...and by the way the rooms aren't big enough to hold the number of beds we are describing to them, in case we hadn't noticed.

And then on one magical day, perhaps not the exact day we had expected but within two days of that day, a large truck arrives carrying 60 mattresses - the fat ones, not the thin ones - and just a hint of disbelief is carried away in its newly emptied bed. Later the same day another truck offloads wooden bunk bed frames and carries away an even greater load of disbelief as the children realize that this plan we've been describing to them, right down to the fact that they'll each have their own bed with their own brand new mattresses - will actually come into being not just someday, but someday soon.

We even bring them in and show them exactly which rooms are their new rooms, and before long the new roommates have formed together into a cleaning crew, removing every hint of dust or dirt from floors, walls, doors, and windows. Gone is their disbelief, now entirely replaced by eager expectation. Mori speaks almost no English, but he finds the words to narrate to us which bed every boy in his room is going to sleep in, and walks around for two days telling everyone willing to listen, "Ocira sleep up, I sleep down" except the down part is so full of expectancy that it comes out "dowwwwwwwnnnnn."

Of course African transport isn't exactly synonymous with reliability, and we find ourselves waiting on those curtains and bedsheets - the ones we bought all the way in Kampala, Uganda (eight hours away by bus). For some inexplicable reason when the purchasers arrived here on a bus with the curtains, the bus operator refused to open the cargo hold and continued on to Juba, Sudan. The next day they forgot to load them on to the next bus. The day after they remembered, but the bus broke down. Each day at least a dozen children ask, "will today be the day?" and we wearily shake our heads.

After waiting three days, we decide that curtains or no curtains it's time to move. A house doesn't have to be perfect to be a home, and the anticipation and excitement for this particular home have become palpable. We had hoped to move over the weekend, but instead we greet the kids as they return from school on Monday afternoon and tell them, "as soon as everyone in your room has their belongings packed up, come to the church, and we'll bring you to your new room." General pandemonium ensues, with children throwing whatever clothing, shoes, and special items they own into an assortment of bags, luggage, and cardboard boxes. Despite the dirty, sweaty nature of the task before them, many of them put on their nicest clothes, some even donning ties to mark the occasion. Some sit silently in the church with their belongings awaiting further direction; some are balls of frenetic activity, bouncing back and forth from one place to another to make sure everything they have is really there.

Soon the members of an entire room are assembled, and they look at us imploringly, and we know that the time has really come. We gather them together for a photo, and then they pick up their bags and walk together the 200 meters from church to house.

If the sun weren't shining that Monday it wouldn't have mattered, because the grins on the faces of those children as they moved, room by room, into their new house, would have illuminated the whole of south Sudan.

Many of the youngest children have spent their entire lives sharing a mattress with someone, and the first thing they do in their new rooms is climb into whichever bed has become their own, though it seems unlikely that they'll easily be able to fall asleep there that first night, so overcome are they with excitement.

One group of boys immediately decorate their room with whatever bits of fabric they have around, and as I come down the hallway they welcome me to their room and explain that it is already the smartest room in the house.

I ask Saidi to show me his new room, and he sets off five paces ahead of me, moving with a determination that is only softened by the bounce of his shoulders and his wide angle smile. As I enter, there amidst his brothers he throws his arms open, turns to me and proclaims, "We have waited five years for this house. Now we are here, and it is so good. This is my room, and it shines! God bless this house! Thank you! You are welcome."

Days here are generally long, are often wearying, and tend to produce the most unexpected challenges. On days, however, when I get to stand in the middle of a milestone in life for the children we are here to serve, all of the hours, all the fatigue, all the difficulty recede into the darkness; joy rules the day. And so it is.