One of my former students is a wonderful woman named Sarah Durnbaugh. Sarah is a breath of fresh air. Steady, committed, brilliant, compassionate, funny, observant- just as fine as they come. She’s on the way to becoming a physician and is spending this summer in a small city in Sudan where she is teaching science and working in a plant nursery. Her updates have been the highlight of my e-mail recently. She captures her experiences so well. We read so many headlines about Sudan and the war there, but it is rare that those stories have a face. Sarah gives those headlines a face. This is one of her recent updates:
I want to begin by telling you about my new favorite holiday. I had never heard of World Refugee Day in the United States, but apparently it’s an international holiday. For obvious reasons, this holiday is more widely observed in Sudan than in the US. None of the students had school, and many had a role in the festivities.
So for those of you, like me, who have never heard of this holiday, it occurred on June 20th. I had the privilege of celebrating it with refugees. Well, I guess in the strictest sense of the word, that’s inaccurate. They’re internally displaced (within the same country), so they’re not really refugees; but since they’ve been driven out of their homes and live in camps here in Nimule, I think they qualify. There was some serious pageantry at this celebration. The festivities were held at Motoyo Primary School, essentially next door to the DOT compound. There were hundreds of people in attendance. Everyone there was representing his or her tribe, yet there was unity in the sense that for most of the people there, Nimule is not their native home. For once I felt like I was in the majority! It was a celebration of differences. Each of the major tribes: Acholi, Dinka, and Madi, did a couple of traditional tribal dances that were simply fabulous to watch. Each of the primary schools sang a song or two, sometimes incorporating a dance into their performance. There were many speeches, but I’m going to be honest and say that I have no clue what most of them were saying because the speaker system was less than desirable. What I did get out of the speeches was that everyone who spoke thanked everyone in attendance…individually (at least it felt like it). The Sudanese are all about being formal in their speeches during meetings and celebrations, so anyone who speaks thanks pretty much anyone they can think of to thank. It’s not the most efficient system, but I guess at least everyone feels aptly appreciated at the end of the day. The celebration ended with a big football game between the “NGOs” and the “Government.” I thought that was hilarious. Some of the teachers from Fulla played on the government team.
Fifteen of my students at Fulla did a drama for the crowd. Now let’s talk about this a bit. Envision giving your average high school students in the US an assignment to come up with a play to perform. What would that look like? Okay, now take that picture, and raise the maturity level, depth, and hard work put into the process a good deal. That’s what this drama was like. It was insightful and encompassed so much of the political situation in Sudan right now. Here’s just a taste: it involved Arab Northerners, SPLA soldiers, and a UNHCR team that was repatriating a group of displaced Southerners who had been living in an IDP camp. It was directed by one of my favorite students, named Kadema. He’s a senior 3 student with an amazing story. He’s from Bahr el-Ghazal, a city far north of Nimule, and during the war, the government troops invaded his city, and everyone was dispersed. For the past ten or so years he hasn’t known whether any of the members of his family had survived the attack. Kadema, himself, fled but was attacked along the road and left to die. Luckily, some people passing through found him and took him to a nearby town where he recovered. He then walked all the way to Nimule (a several days’ travel and obviously quite dangerous), where he knew schools were still in operation and that he could get an education. He’s been here by himself since then and is consistently the top scorer on their exams. During our first week in Nimule, he was ecstatic because someone told him that they heard that someone heard that someone else heard that his father was alive (a common way that families are being reunited…through the grape vine). A week later he came up to us holding back tears because he had talked to his entire family on the phone, and they were all alive. The last he had heard, they were at the North/South border but didn’t have the money to get to Nimule. So Kadema has yet to see his family that was broken up many years ago, but in the mean time he’s become a wonderful human being. He’s one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met to talk to, and boy is he intelligent. He’d answer every question I throw at his class if I’d let him.
So many of the students have stories like this, not necessarily in their content, but at least in intensity. It really makes you wonder how they can focus on school when they’ve got all of that on their mind.
Just a little aside…THIS is what war does. It’s not the clean and intricate game of chess you read about in history textbooks. It’s not the concise story you hear on the news about this number of troops getting killed, this number of car bombs going off, and some country’s leader getting upset with another country’s leader. Those things happen, but that’s not war. War is Kadema being separated from his family. It’s thousands and thousands of people being forced off of their land, their crops being destroyed and their cattle killed. War is an entire generation uneducated and homeless, knowing nothing but violence. War is a generation of children who grow up fearing thunderstorms because it sounds eerily like gunshots. This war has uprooted a nation, as if they were all gathered in someone’s hands like dice, shaken up, and thrown haphazardly back onto the land. Many of the people who were not damaged physically were damaged psychologically. We have met many people who clearly have mental disorders stemming from their experiences in the war. The war has made many of the people of this country dependent on handouts, which, as you can imagine, is pretty damaging to a person’s pride. Right now they’re in a hard and slow transition back to self-sufficiency, and in my opinion, they’re doing a great job. I’ve never experienced a war on my own soil, so to be here with the Sudanese in the aftermath of such a long war is incredibly eye-opening.