More than 30 years have passed since I was first in Sudan — before independence of the South. I remember that year as the worst year of my life — so many problems; a crisis every day. I was deathly sick three times and lost a lot of weight. I vowed to never return. However, by the grace of God, and in God’s mysterious way, I find myself back; in South Sudan this time.
Now 30 months into my current service in South Sudan, I find the country much the same as it was 30 years ago: dense with war, famine, violence, poverty, corruption, poor leadership, no infrastructure, the economy in shambles and a whole host of other seemingly intractable problems.
Yet there are so many people here — South Sudanese and internationals — who are working and trying so hard to do something.
Why do so many of us internationals stay here? It is because we work with amazing people who are training teachers, midwives, nurses, catechists, priests and sisters, and farmers. We work with people who keep going no matter the hardships. We work with people who don’t seem to mind the seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Together we work in frustrating and oppressive circumstances. We work under conditions that try the body and soul. We celebrate, complain, criticize, praise and cry. But we keep working.
Why stay in such a place? Why volunteer to come to a place like this?
Sometimes I wonder what kind of people come to countries like South Sudan? We are not intellectuals with deep thoughts. Not all of us are very able with our hands to build things. Most don’t have any gift of eloquence to shout against the injustices. We are frail and weak human beings.
We are just simple people doing average work, and yet many of us believe that God has called us here. Our presence seems so small and sometimes so useless, but here we are.
It can seem a waste of time when we go two steps forward and one and a half steps back. Just when we think we are making progress, a new problem arises to wipe out all the gains. Yet we don’t stop. We don’t lose heart. We keep going. Why did God ask us to be here? We may never know the answer to that mystery. But somehow, we are doing something. And every now and then God grants us subtle insights to answer the mystery of why we are here.
South Sudanese are always coming up to foreigners to ask for help. They have a thousand problems and a thousand needs. You know before they even begin that it is about money. Some time ago, a young man came and I just sat down with him and waited for the inevitable request. I started to ask about his family: his mother and father; his brothers and sisters, where he grew up, what he did as a youth, some stories of his school years, how he came to be in Juba.
We chatted for quite some time. And then he said something that totally humbled me. He said, “I know you can’t give me money, but no one has ever asked me about my family or my situation or my past, and talking to you now has made me realize how lucky I am. I thank you for your concern. Mr. Gabe, you have made me happy.” He got up, shook my hand and left.
I thought about this and I realized that this is why I am here. I am not here to build anything. I am not here to gain any career-enhancing experiences. I am not here to hide from suffering. I am here to listen, to enter into the world of others, to taste the experience of just being present.
I think many forget this lesson when they live in another country. But I am sure this is why I am in this mission. I just want to be with these poor South Sudanese. It is all a mystery to me, but I continue in faith. Praise God.
Photos by Gabe Hurrish