Our colleagues Joanna and Hubi got their papers to go back to Kassala!
We were all very happy and relieved when their papers came through. So on Monday they packed their things, hopped in the truck and by the end of the day they were in Kassala.
And today we heard that our papers have moved from one department to another. If all goes well we could be in Kassala in 2 weeks!
So that is all very encouraging.
What else to write about…
All of my siblings sought refuge in lands of palm trees this week – the boys were in Cali and Heather was in Florida with Gma and Gpa. For some reason it made me feel connected to them knowing we were all looking out our windows at palm trees.
Brian and I have been doing a lot of reading. Since we arrived I have read 4 books, which has got to be some kind of record for me. I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Bean Trees. She’s an amazing author. She also wrote the Poinsonwood Bible which, if you haven’t read, you should read (some Christians get offended by it, but I don’t think that is her intention). And after years of Brian’s prompting I am starting Atlas Shrugged. I’m enjoying it already. But I swear my biceps are going to be bigger after lifting that thing for a few weeks.
Brian is reading Anna Karenina which is one of the few Tolstoy books he hasn’t read. I am not sure how many books he has read since we got here… and he’s working with his headphones on, so I’ll leave that question unanswered.
I’ve been playing guitar but the same string keeps breaking and I only have so many sets of strings… makes me reluctant to play.
I am typically an introspective person. But this period of time being in Khartoum has made me particularly pensive. I am learning a lot about myself. As I am reacting and interacting with our circumstances, I have had time to really reflect on why and how I the way I am. It has been really good for me to uncover some layers of my personality. I didn’t write this before, but you know how some of the people in Kassala call me Bessaly? Well the word Bessaly in Arabic means onion. We all thought that was really funny (still is). But it has turned out to be a very good title for the phase I am in right now – peeling off layers of who I am and why I am that way. I’ll be really happy when I have some other things to focus on, but for now I’m embracing what I am learning.
Brian’s headphones are off. He says he’s read 5 books… maybe 6. I asked him what random information he would like to add to this stream of consciousness post. His response is,
“I’ve learned that when I have a lot of stress, anxiety and uncertainty, I shake.”
Haha! I have no idea how to cap this one off.
How about an elephant joke (shout out to Brian Erickson for the inspiration)!
Q: Why is an elephant big, grey, and wrinkly?
A: Because, if it was small, white and smooth it would be an Aspirin.
We’ve been holding our breath a lot lately. A couple of days went by when we thought maybe SP would be kicked out with the other organizations that have been booted. We prepared ourselves mentally and physically for having to leave.
Funny things happen when you hold your breath for too long. There are moments of panic. There are moments of confusion when nothing makes sense. There are moments when drifting off into an endless sleep feels like the best option. But then, once your cheeks are stretched to the max and your eyes are bugged out, you have to let it out and breathe. And live and move forward.
It appears SP will not be kicked out any time soon. This is great news. We still are unsure about our status on getting back to Kassala, but we are encouraged by the goodwill of people here toward SP.
So we’re still in Khartoum proceeding as though we will be back in Kassala soon (Insha’Allah).
So I am sure that you have all been seeing headlines and what not, but I read some articles today that I thought were interesting and spoke a bit more about the climate surrounding the ICC indictment. So if you’re interested here are a few:
There is really no news to report about our status in Khartoum. We didn’t leave the house for 3 days until this afternoon when we FINALLY went out to get some lunch. There have been rallies and protests around the city, but none of them have been violent. So we are hanging low, reading, playing games, watching the news, watching movies, waiting to see what happens moment by moment.
The biggest news is about the organizations that are being kicked out of Darfur. Samaritans Purse has not been kicked out yet. The organizations that have been kicked out are going to leave a big gap for the people of Darfur. There is a lot of concern (and rightfully so) about what is going to happen to refugees and internally displaced people without the help and advocacy of these aid organizations.
Tomorrow is the start of a new week. We will be blogging more often just to update on what’s happening, even if there is not a lot of news.
It’s going to be hard to summarize the past week, but we’ll try… Last week we were in Hamesh Koreb, the village where most of SP’s programs exist for East Sudan. We had meetings with community leaders about the programs SP will be doing there (without community leader’s support and input there is really no reason to call it “development”). After some intense meetings I was reading in a hammock in the afternoon when Brian came over with “the look” on his face. As many of you know, Brian is notorious for not being able to hide his emotions EVER and I have had the privilege of studying his face and correlating the correct emotions to those faces for almost 9 years now. So he came over to my reading spot with a face that said, “Oh s@*#.” I sat up and asked him what was happening. He told me that Joanna, our roommate/coworker, had just called him and told us we were being kicked out of Kassala. Joanna, Hubi, Brian and myself – all of the ex-pat staff.
There is a long explanation for this and it is really confusing, but we’ll try to tackle it. The reason we were kicked out is because all of our different visas had expired right around the same time. Joanna and Hubi’s 6 month residency visas expired and Brian’s and my 1 month entry visa expired. It is important to understand that the expirations coming and going is part of the normal Sudan visa processing. While Brian and I had a 1 month visa, our papers were progressing to get our 6 month visas. Joanna’s and Hubi’s were going through the same process to get another 6 month visa. People working in Sudan have visas processing constantly: you get one, you apply for the next…the cycle doesn’t stop. It is common for people’s visas to expire and have the government take no notice, or allow you to stay where you are without movement to the field until the visa is approved. In our case the government said we had to leave Hamesh Koreb and Kassala – we all had to go back to Khartoum. We pulled every string we could, we talked to our community connections, had our staff going back and forth to gov’t offices, but nothing was working. So with heavy hearts, Brian and I left Hamesh Koreb saying goodbye to the guards, our coffee buddies, hoping we would return soon.
On our way home we stopped to get some more coffee at which point Brian stepped out to take another phone call. When he came back he had another look on his face. I asked what happened and he said he had just talked to Joanna and that she had just been told to report to a gov’t office. Once there, she and our other Kassala staff were told that they received “a report” that I had been working in Hamesh Koreb the week before. This particular gov’t official went on to lecture them and say that “Bethany cannot work while she is here, she cannot got to meetings, she cannot DO ANY WORK OF ANY KIND! She is here with her husband and that is all. No work.” Unfortunately this was not the first time we had heard this lecture. I had heard it in the same office where Joanna and the other staff were hearing it. On my papers there is a line that says that I can assist and help with Samaritans Purse projects, but this particular official was fixated on the fact that I did not and would not have a work visa. The person went as far as to say that they would be watching all of us and they would know if I was working. And that was the next mystery – who would have submitted a report that I was working (when I actually wasn’t)? Someone had written and submitted a report that I had visited the women’s side of town and assumed it was an official visit, which it was not. We had a group of people from other organizations staying on the compound with us that weekend and we figured it must have been someone in that group. At any rate, it was not a fun feeling (either time) to feel like a problem child and to feel that my very presence in the community may jeopardize the entire program. Not cool.
On the way home we processed what was happening and why we were getting bullied. We still don’t have the answers to that, though we have a lot of guesses. By the time we made it back to the office, there had been more lecturing about my (not) working and Joanna and Hubi and the other staff had been doing everything in their power to find a way to stay in Kassala. We had dinner and went to bed unsure of whether we could stay or not.
The next morning we woke up and immediately began talking about what to do. Again, most people who have expired visas just sit tight and wait for the new ones. As far as we have heard, no one, not even in Dafur, has been kicked out like this. On top of that, the office was demanding that we write a letter of apology for my (not) working, which we were worried would be used as ammunition for the future. In the end we wrote a letter apologizing for the confusion and explained that I was not, in fact, working. The second thing we did (Brian’s idea) was to ask for a letter in return demanding that we leave so that we could use that letter to show to higher up people in the government, since we were confident that this was not protocol. So we exchanged letters, they insisted we must leave that day, even though that meant us driving at least 2 hours in the dark into Khartoum which isn’t entirely safe. So we packed our things up quickly, said goodbye to the staff there and with somber faces left Kassala. Brian and I had only been there 20 days.
The timing was and is very interesting. We got into Khartoum just 2 days before Franklin Graham, president of SP, was scheduled to come into Sudan to see some sights and meet with President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir. We had a few meetings with Franklin’s “wing-men” and they both felt that our issues in the East were important enough that they wanted Franklin to discuss it with President Bashir. In fact, they thought it was so important that when Franklin came into town, they put us at Franklin’s table for dinner! The dinner was really nice and we found out that Sarah Palin was scheduled to come with Franklin, but canceled at the last minute. So close to an intimate dinner with Tina, I mean Sarah! Oh well…
All of these events had a bit of a cloud over them as the imminent ICC decision was approaching. So yesterday, March 4th, turned out to be an eventful day. Not only was it my 27th birthday, but Franklin Graham met with President Bashir just 5 hours before the ICC announced the warrant for Bashir’s arrest. Who knows what Franklin and Bashir talked about, but no doubt Franklin tried to encourage him in his hour of need. We don’t know if our issues with access in the East were brought up, but if he did, we’re quite sure Bashir had other things on his mind…
So we sat in our living room, eating birthday brownies, watching the ICC come out with it’s first arrest warrant for an acting leader. Miles away, somewhere downtown, rallies showed support. The media showed the thousands that had shown up (in a city of millions mind you) spontaneously (actually they had all been texted in the days previous and told when and where to assemble…we received the text messages as well!) Almost immediately many organizations working in Darfur started to get word that they were getting kicked out of Sudan entirely and their assets were/are being seized by the government.
With all of this, there is very little clarity about anything. I think everyone in the country is waiting to see what happens. Organizations getting kicked out of Darfur is only an indication that, once again, it will be innocent people who really feel the effects of big international decisions. So we are sitting and waiting with the rest of Sudan to see what this will bring; so far SP is safe and hasn’t been kicked out.
So here are the facts in the midst of uncertainty:
1) We are not in Kassala.
2) We want to be in Kassala.
3) We don’t know when we’ll get back to Kassala.
4) I had a great birthday in spite of these events, thanks to my wonderful husband and amazing family and friends.
5) We don’t know what effect the ICC’s decision will bring.
[Note from Brian: While we do not know what effect the ICC will have on us, we can positively say that if the 10 NGOs that have been expelled from Sudan are actually forced out in the next 24 hours, then there will be a disaster within a disaster affecting millions of innocent lives. This is what happens when well meaning people do not bother to learn what the effects of their actions could actually be. I have been and will continue to be opposed to this path that the ICC has taken.]
In those 20 days we learned and were exposed to some of the intricacies of the incredible culture. The predominant people group in East Sudan are the Beja people. The Beja are a nomadic group of people who live in East Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and in Southern Egypt. They historically are a nomadic group of herders who keep camels, cows, sheep and goats. Living in stark desert areas, they move where the water and food is. Like so many nomadic groups in Sudan, pockets of Beja have started to settle into communities. They still keep their livestock and live off of their milk/meat.
The Beja are known for their vests, their swords, their camels and of course their coffee. The men we have had the pleasure of getting to know are proud to be Beja. They talked about the ancient times when they would fight with their swords and move from place to place. There is a large settlement of Beja in Northeastern Kassala state in a village called Hamesh Koreb – a 5 hour drive through nothing but desert from Kassala town. Hamesh Koreb is well known in Kassala as “The City of the Quran”. Hamesh Koreb is also the main hub of Samaritans Purse’s projects in Kassala State.
Brian and I took to the long desert drive to Hamesh Koreb with our rommate Joanna the end of our first week in Kassala. At about the 2 hour mark, the car turned right off of the pavement straight onto the sand (You’ve heard us talk about how horrible the roads in the South were, and now we are not even driving on roads at all! Just sand!). We arrived in Hamesh Koreb in the evening as the sun was setting. Huge palm trees waved in the wind and as the sun set the stars appeared. I thought the stars in the south were amazing until that first night. We slept under the stars and mosquito nets and when I would wake up in the night a new constellation was spinning above my head. Little did I know, that would not be the most enchanting part of our stay there.
Hamesh Koreb is broken into two: The Men’s Side and The Women’s Side. There is a physical wall that separates the two. On the men’s side is the market, the school (boys school for obvious reasons), and, well, the whole town. The women’s side is a sea of Beja tents (tents made of wood and palm leaves).
Here’s some of the breakdown. All children are raised on the women’s side. When the boys are 12 years old, they move to the men’s side. When the boys are married, they have a wedding celebration (split into men and women) and the man and wife share a home on the women’s side. However, when that man, or any other man, is walking through the women’s side any other woman will hide her face completely from a man. So it is feasible that in a man’s life in Hamesh Koreb he could see only his mother’s and his wife’s face. It is one of the most strict, closed cultures in the country (world) and Samaritan’s Purse is there. In fact, they LOVE SP. Samaritan’s Purse worked there for 5 years providing food and medical services to the people there. SP had to evacuate when the war was ending and the government was changing, but as soon as things settled, they petitioned the government to bring Samaritan’s Purse back. And because of their goodwill and trust, we were able to see what few will ever be able to.
Our very first morning there, Brian and I were asked to join a religious leader to see the wells on the women’s side. Keep in mind that almost NO organization is working in Hamesh Koreb and the ones who are have almost NEVER seen the women’s side. And even still, before we knew it, I was throwing on a head covering and getting into a car to go to the women’s side. We saw the wells that are in desperate need of repair and the men kept their eyes forward as flashes of color ducked out of sight: the women. We didn’t see many of them. But we did see bright pieces of fabric fluttering away from wells as we approached. We saw bright greens and reds and blues escape behind walls and into tents. We thanked the religious leader for his help in showing us the wells that need fixing and Brian was able to start rehabilitating them the next week.
The next afternoon I had the incredible honor of going to the women’s side with another Sudanese woman (without Brian). At this point, I start to type with a little trepidation, as I did walking through the narrow passageway to the women’s side. I checked and rechecked to make sure I wasn’t showing any skin. I felt a weight on my chest as I do now remembering it. We met a woman in the passageway wrapped in green. She led us into the women’s side. As we walked she showed me how to cover my face when a man was coming. I mimicked her like a good student. When a man walked by we covered our faces and turned to the wall. As we walked further through small passageways lined by mud walls, I saw the same colors as we had the day before, only this time the fabric wasn’t fluttering and the faces were not hidden. What I saw was beauty. I was struck and still an struck by the faces that I saw behind their robes of color. Their skin was the color of coffee, not the beans, but the grounds. Their hair curled into beautiful dreads, their faces shining with nose rings that would put any punk rocker to shame. Their hands and feet were adorned with henna, cuffed by silver and gold. I saw faces with pride, not shame. Before I could take this all in, I was led into a building with a large group of women weaving the palms for their homes. There was a sound like a steady wind as the women skillfully braided the palm leaves into a firm tarp. They invited me to sit down. I sat. We communicated only through smiles and hand shakes. They were as curious about me as I was them, and we all pretended not to stare at each other.
And then it was prayer time. The sun was setting and suddenly a woman rose from the group. The woman was old. Age can get confusing here, so I have no guesses. But there was no doubt she was a leader. She had a large gold nose ring, beautiful gold and silver cuffs on her wrists and ankles. The women followed her lead as each one lined up. I had the best seat in the house as the women bent, knelt, stood and whispered prayers. A smell of incense and palms floated to my nostrils as the cocoons of colors rose and fell at the leader’s command. When prayers were over, the woman next to me took both of my hands in hers. She led me and the friend accompanying me through the women who were resettling with their palms. Before I knew it I was sitting in front of the religious leader for the women – the wife of the first Muslim leader in Hamesh Koreb, the man that unified 9 distinct warring Beja groups into one community. She held my hands and blessed me. I knew it. I didn’t know it because I understood what she was saying, because I couldn’t. It was a blessing that I saw with her movements as I felt it with my soul. Her blue, cataract eyes looked past me but I looked straight into them, thanking her with my soul because I didn’t have the words.
And then we left. We walked back down the mud-walled passageways, back onto the men’s side and back to the SP compound. I sat. I blinked long, hard blinks, trying to remember what it looked like and smelled like. So much beauty, so much mysticism. That night as I laid under the mosquito net and stars I dreamed about color and about beauty that is so powerful you have to hide it.
But like all enchantments, they fade and real life reminds you that are two side to every nose ring.
One week later we were kicked out of Kassala state.
But as I did that night under the stars, allow your mind to ponder how quickly we make conclusions. Driving into the desert I thought about the horrors I would see on “the other side of the wall”. Instead I found women who are strong, who have faith, who care for their children and for an outsider like me. Allow yourself to imagine hiding your most treasured possessions.