Bethany here. I was instant-messaging my friend Ali last night and she reminded me that I have been here for four months. I was shocked! The first two months felt like time was craawwlliiinnggg by. Then I guess I adjusted and now I don’t know where the time is going. Brian’s coworker, Sarah, told me that time in Africa is like an ant crawling across the windshield of a car that’s going 100 miles an hour. Meaning, the minutes and hours seem to drag on and on but a year goes by in a flash. She told me this early on and now I am starting to appreciate it.
Our daily life here now has a nice routine. Brian and I get up in the morning, get ready for work and say goodbye to each other. Brian walks across the compound to the office and I walk on narrow paths by little tukuls to the TPO office. I come home, shower off the sweat and dust from the day and we meet sometime over rice and beans and decompress from the day. A lot of our evenings are spent playing cards, watching movies on the laptop, or going to the “Green Mango” down the road for coke or beer. It’s felt very nice to have that routine. It is only disrupted by Brian traveling around Southern Sudan for work or ALL of the compound issues he has to attend to. The “safety” fence around the compound has broken in three different places for three different reasons in the past few weeks. The funniest one was the huge mango tree that collapsed on the fence during a rain storm one night. We all heard a loud crash and came running out into the rain with flashlights trying to locate the source of the noise in our pajamas. I’m sure it was quite a sight.
In the quiet of our compound life is pretty nice. I feel comfortable here. It’s familiar and safe. But I am reminded daily of where I am through working with TPO. My job has been my greatest joy here but also the place where I am confronted with some of the harshest realities. I have started to travel into surrounding rural villages to speak to youth about staying active. This has proven to be some of the most rewarding experiences for me being here. I think I mentioned in my previous blog that these youth have almost nothing to do with their time. So they can help their families (no adolescent really WANTS that no matter where they live), drink local brews of alcohol, or fool around. Now. These issues aren’t new. It’s the same problem in the states! But. The difference is the context in which they live. With a country that has virtually no infrastructure, no education, and NO health care, these issues become larger and more problematic than they would be elsewhere. So it is my job, with the help of a few TPO staff to bring awareness and activities to the youth of Yei county.
What we have been doing for the past month is inviting the leaders of the youth from all over Yei county to come to a workshop help by TPO. We printed out little invitations that made their eyes light up when they got them. We provided tea and a meal, and notebooks for them to take notes. They sat attentively and I started by discussing the concept of natural leadership. We asked them why they were chosen to meet with us and they said their youth groups chose them to be their representatives. The concept of natural leadership was new not only to the youth I was speaking to, but also to the other TPO staff at the first workshop! The only leaders they know are chiefs or people appointed to be leaders by the community. Often times, these leaders are power-hungry and neglect the youth of their area completely. (Side Note: Children and youth are not valued here like they are in the states. They are often viewed as property or even a means for income – they are not always viewed as the future of the country). Because of this, the youth often feel powerless or stuck in the system that exists. We taught them about uniting a group of youth together to support each other, to be active together and to accomplish goals together. We went around the room and ask them each one goal they had for their youth group. Almost every one said, “We want to be a great football (soccer) team.” We talked about how to make a plan of action to become a “great football team” and how to be self-sustaining in order to purchase footballs, shoes, uniforms, etc.
At the end of every workshop I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I could see the youth were getting excited and energetic about what they want to accomplish. On the other hand, I couldn’t look away from this back-drop of death, political strife and hopelessness.
For instance, one of the workshops started three hours late because one of the boys that was supposed to attend had committed suicide the day before. I was irate that we were continuing with the workshop. I thought it should have been canceled. They need time. The psychosocial worker who works in that village said, “They want to come. They really want to have this workshop.” And sure enough they came, with smiles and they listened. They moved on. Death is not like it is in the states. It happens. And life must go on. If life stopped every time there was a death, life would almost never happen.
At another workshop, we were using a room in the “health clinic”. We did the first half of the workshop and as the group went out to get their lunch, I heard some commotion in the hallway. I went out and saw thirty people crowded in and around a room. As the group dispersed I walked by to see a woman, bare breasted, sprawled out on the only bed in the clinic. I felt bad for looking. She was unconscious at best, but from what I saw, she may have already passed. There were no health care workers at the clinic, so women with babies on their backs stood at the perimeter of the room, murmuring to each other. For the rest of the group I could see they were concerned in the moment, but they went on. I wanted to go in, see if she had a pulse, a fever, if she was breathing. I knew those women did that. I could do no more than anyone else. But it felt strange and uncomfortable for me to know that there was no one that could really help. After lunch we continued with the workshop – continued while there was a steady stream of visitors next door. Then crying.
These are just some of the back-drops that I can’t help but see when I look at the beautiful faces of these young people. They deserve everything I had growing up and more. But what can I really give them? One answer came on Friday last week. It was the last workshop we were doing. I sat in the back listening to the discussion on how to become a strong football (soccer) team, sipping sugary tea. A young girl came and sat next to me on my bench. She first smiled at me and said nothing. I smile back, assuming she just wanted to be next to me. Then she leaned forward and spoke to me with a sweet, airy voice and said, “Yes, Madam.” I nodded and leaned in. In perfect English with that beautiful Sudanese accent, she said, “Yes, Madam. I wanted to tell you that God will bless you because you have taught us what we do not know.”
I was stunned. For over two weeks I had been jabbering on in front of 12, 30, 50 youth about each person having the power to accomplish goals, and that they are their own greatest hope. I had really no idea if what I was saying was really helping anything. As I let this young girl’s words sink into my being she continued to look at me. I think she really wanted me to believe it. I stammered and finally, the only thing I could think of to say was, “Well…God is going to bless you because you are wonderful!” She giggled and I laughed at how NOT profound my response was.
You have taught us what we do not know. I think I found some answers to my questions in that simple statement.