So often in places like this, ‘joy’ isn’t something that’s lost—its something you never had to begin with.//Imagine a dream, where every single emotion, expression and interaction is suffocated by a wet blanket of despair. A constant—never ceasing flat-line of emotions. Where our ‘hellos’, conversations and even celebrations are sucked of any recognizable joy or energy. Imagine asking someone how their family is, or telling them happy birthday— with absolutely no expression whatsoever on your face . NO intonations in your voice. And Imagine this bad dream—being your reality.
On a Sunday at church, I watched as everyone around me clapped to the music with lifeless hands and empty gazing eyes. Though we were there conducting a church service, it seemed to end at just that; there was no enthusiasm in the message, in our praise, or in our eyes. Recognizing this lifelessness in the one place where I thought “life” might be found, I started to realize something that had seeped into my own soul. Since the day I had arrived in Sudan, the cultural tone of unexcitable emotions and joyless breaths from dusk till dawn, I had been silently pulled down into a mentality that “if they’re not happy, I can’t be either”. I sat and realized that since I’ve been here—I haven’t felt free to be my real self. Any of you who really know me, know that I’m a relatively goofy girl ( and I’ve decided that goofiness IS a very close relative of joy). My mother will tell you that there are nights at home where I just get up and start dancing to the music on a commercial, or my college roommate can tell you that when we’re listening to music in the car, I often feel its my personal duty to dance so hard that the whole car shakes; in my truest element—I feel completely free within myself to let loose, be goofy and just enjoy being free- in every sense of the word.
But since I’ve been here…. In almost 4 months … I have not once felt free to experience such kinds of joy. Outside of moments with the kids ( which I should mention- ARE the most precious moments in my life here), I haven’t felt like ‘me exposing or releasing my joy or happiness’, would be appropriate. I can’t even explain it. Its like this sick feeling of obligation to not stand out or impose your inner joy on others who for their own reasons obviously carry on in sadness and despair. And why wouldn’t I feel this way? It’s so easy to believe the lie that if you’re living in a place like this—in the midst of such common devastation–that expressing Joy, just for the heck of it—would be a betrayal of the reality of “life” here.
Last month, one of our older girls got news that her uncle had been beaten into a bloody pulp by some men on the streets and was admitted to the hospital just next to our compound. Each day for over a week, Kasara would cook food or boil water for bathing and take it to her uncle who lay unable to even speak; until one day she went- and he was dead. When Kasara came home, she was in a hysterical mess and in her tears she could hardly stand. Then, the men from our staff told her to “stop crying” and told her that she couldn’t go to be with family until she ‘calmed down’ and ‘stopped crying’. My blood grew hot and thick. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Stop crying?!”…. “Calm down?!”…. how can you- and why should you ‘calm down’ when you have just walked in on your own uncle, lying lifeless and dead. How can we as parents not even allow our own children to show their pain in front of us at home; if they cant express their emotions at home where can they? Where can they be free to be themselves. If someone in this culture can’t feel free to live in their pain after losing a family member, how can they possibly feel free to live in joy if they feel it, excitement if they feel it, or the love of God- if they feel it.
While I was away in South Africa for my Respite, Kasara then lost someone else– a friend of hers, in a motorcycle accident. The story is that a man working for the UN here, became possessed. (Possession and witchcraft is simply a reality in many parts of Africa, and though its often thought of as tall tales or imagination in America, it is a real force that tears lives apart here.) All morning the man was experiencing demonic possession, until finally, he took the keys of a large UN shipment truck, and took off. Still under possession, he drove straight through the gate, and tore out onto the streets. Once on the road, he came upon a motorcycle driver who was carrying a passenger (motorcycles are the taxis of the town). The possessed driver then hit the motorcycle, knocking the passenger off to the side of the road, and the driver flew ahead of the truck, and under the force of the demons, the UN driver apparently ‘intentionally’ drove right over the body of the motorcycle driver (who was Kasaras friend). The Possessed man drove off and has not been seen since. Later that week, Kasara lost yet another person in her life…. her own brother. In that same week while I was gone, witchcraft made its appearance in the school in which all of our kids attend. Some students managed to discretely poison 3 fellow students–and two of them, died before they ever reached home that day. One, fell and died right at the side of our compound where his tiny little body lie for all to see.
Last month just before I left for SA, one of our little girls, Luluwe, was stung by a scorpion. When we reached the hospital, we were told that they had no more medicine for treatment of scorpion stings. After some persuasion and desperate pleading, the man agreed to check again. While we waited another 45 minutes for the man to come with the injection, I got to hear the story of one of our older boys, who had accompanied Luluwe and I to the hospital . Wani, was about 5 years old when he witnessed one of the most painful attacks of his life. One day as his father sat outside, some drunk men came to where he was and began to harass him. As the quarrelling increased, the men pulled out guns. That’s when Wani’s father called out to his wife and children to run into the bush. The others ran away as fast as they could, but young Wani refused. His father continued shouting to Wani to run, in fears that they would shoot at him… But still, even as a young child, he refused to leave his father there alone. And that’s when he watched the men shoot his father repeatedly. He narrated the event to me with a daze in his eyes like it was a bad dream that he had perfectly memorized. “Once here—once here— and again here, in his side” he showed me. His voice left hanging over a still silence like a painful series of scenes was still playing out in his mind. Before Wani’s father ever made it to a hospital, the police officials showed up to arrest him with no explanation. They later found out that the men who had attacked him, apparently had some push in the administration around there. And after the attack, in fears of punishment for what they had done, they went to the police and said that this man ( Wani’s father) had shot himself, and was now accusing them of doing it. For this—he was arrested and thrown into jail, where he stayed for over one month, with no wound care, no medical attention; nothing. And there, he died—from a disease that developed due to bacterial infections in his unbandaged bullet wounds. Now, all these years later, Wani is left with the haunting memories of watching his father being shot over and over and over— and then to know- to see with his own eyes—what really happened, and to carry in his heart for the rest of his life- the knowledge that his father died, because of lies and injustice——-with that burden in his heart— what room is left for joy?
Just yesterday as we sat and ate breakfast, we heard screams outside like someone was crying hysterically. Upon looking outside we saw that our cook, Lawa, was screaming and running towards the hospital. “Someone must have died”, one man said, and continued drinking his tea and eating his bread. No one really budged and it seemed no one was really bothered by the idea of death. Already, I sat in despair with a troubled mind over what could have happened. Minutes later, someone came and passed on the news that Lawa’s father had been bitten by a snake the night before, and had died by morning. “Sorry,” one man said, and took another sip of his tea. The story was that Lawa’s father who lives down by the Nile, had been bitten by a snake; once he reached the hospital, he found not a single doctor to attain to his pressing conditions. And without care, he venom had killed him by morning.
I sat in emotional shock and my heart broke in empathy as I tried to imagine what it would be like to get news one morning that my father had died without any forewarning, without any goodbyes, and without any help available to him in his time of need. That’s it- he’s just gone.
Also yesterday, the same day that our cooks father died, one of our own girls, (Aparo) found out that her baby brother had died.
With so much death at the forefront of our minds, my spirit was incredibly downcast and apparently that was clear by the look on my face. In an attempt to sympathize, one man said, “these things are very sad—but they happen.” It was like his acceptance of death had surpassed his capability to shed one more single tear for this reality that has forever haunted the lives of people here.
“its really very sad. But here- death is happening so much that we really don’t mind it so much anymore” he said
I tried to conceal my shock at his statement and in hopes that I had just misunderstood what he was meaning to say—I asked him, “you don’t mind death?”
“Not so much.” He said shrugging his shoulders.
They explained to me that living here during the war, has just trained them to know that death, though sad, is just something ‘normal’ here. They said that during the war, every single day, you would hear and uproar of cries from the hospital . Everyday you would hear of 5, 10, or sometimes more people dying from various things. Bombings, LRA attacks, sickness,… nothing could shock you. And seeing dead bodies was… well.. nothing out of the ordinary. Essentially, their hearts and minds were trained to see dead bodies as just that—bodies. Not people with families and dreams, and histories—but bodies. Just another name added to list of the deceased; a list that didn’t seem to be nearing its end any time soon.
I understood that being exposed to tragedy like this everyday, naturally desensitizes the heart. But I simply didn’t think I could ever relate to a mentality that just accepts it. A mentality that refuses to even allow the worst of devastations, to budge a single emotion in my heart. I couldn’t imagine it, and in all honesty— I didn’t ever want to get to that point. I don’t want to see the day when my heart is so unmoved by the loss of a life, or the sadness of an unjust killing, or the shocking tragedy of another child lost to sorcery and evil. I don’t want to become so used to it, that I accept it is “the way life is”. I know it’s the reality in this place, but everything in my soul screams to me that this was never the way God wanted things to be for us.
In my time here both this year and last, I have seen that it’s not just the locals that have these numbed emotions to death. It’s a mentality that invades the soul of nearly anyone who immerses themselves in life here for long enough. No matter where you come from, no matter the love in your heart— I’m beginning to believe, as I have seen , that you too will slowly but surely find your souls’ reaction changing, if you also have enough exposure to such tragedy within a culture that trains the mind to somberly accept it as an inevitable pain that isn’t worth shedding another tear for.
With death, and tragedy at the door and an ever looming cloud of somberness over every emotion each and every day, life here—is nothing like I’ve known life to be before. I don’t feel free to live fully and authentically in whatever emotions I may be feeling. Nelson Mandella once said something to this effect- that as we expose our own greatness, we inherently give permission to those around us to do the same, and this just simply isn’t happening here. I believe that that Lords will for me is to live more and more freely in the person that he has made me to be, more and more every day. Part of my greatest joys in being here, have been experiencing who I am in him, and learning to live comfortably in it. But as I’m seeing more and more the ways that my current setting is prohibiting my spirit from living in that freedom— its beginning to make me question, just how much longer I want to be here. However at the same time, I know that in life if you’re comfortable, then you’re not growing, and I want to be open to the challenges God wills for me, even if im not comfortable.