Last weekend our church at home had a mission service and asked us to write some stories about our life in Sudan.
Here is one:
In July we had a leadership and peacebuilding workshop with about 20 women from various areas throughout our diocese. It was a significant event – most of the women at the workshop had never left their home areas, had never created relationships with people from different tribes, and had never felt that they were valued enough as people to be taught skills that could improve their communities. The simple act of bringing women for two weeks to live and learn together was probably more important than the formal ideas they sat down to learn in our classroom.
So, at the end of the two weeks, when I was talking to them about how they could incorporate the ideas of peace we had talked about in class into their home communities I wasn’t too surprised by their simple suggestion – greet people. “By greeting a person,” they said, “you are showing that you respect them, that you want to have a relationship with them, that you want to be at peace with them.”
The common greeting in Dinka, the most widely spoken language in our area, is “Chee-bak”. Literally translated, it means, “You are well?” To greet someone you are close to you will say, “Cheebak, cheebak, cheebak, cheebak” while tapping their right shoulder with your right hand, then shaking hands, then tapping their shoulder, then shaking hands, and so on. The closer you are to a person, the longer this greeting will go on. Greetings are important.
We greet most people as we are walking – children, women, old men, and young warriors.
Dinka people are often described by themselves and others, as warriors. Many grow up in cattle camps where they take care of cattle and, in their free time, practice fighting. The fighting trains them, they say, to defend themselves against cattle raiders. During the most recent civil war in Sudan the army of the south, the SPLA, was made up almost entirely of Dinka. In light of this, young Dinka men take care to look and act fierce.
So, one day we were walking home when our path crossed with a young Dinka man. This man’s face was set in a scowl; he looked straight ahead of him, and swaggered a bit in an intimidating way.
I said, “Chee-bak”.
At this, the man’s whole demeanor changed. He stopped in his tracks and immediately his scowl turned into a huge smile. He returned the greeting, and asked where we were coming from, where we were going, and why we weren’t driving a car. We talked for a few minutes, quickly using all the Dinka words we knew, before parting with the traditional Dinka farewell – Ok abi yuk – We will find each other again. As we walked away the young man kept looking back at us and kept smiling. He no longer looked like a scary warrior.
We also were amazed at this interaction. We had clearly seen what the women had predicted – greetings could be an effective peacebuilding skill.
But there is more.
When we returned to our Dinka class that afternoon we proudly told our teacher about this interaction – mostly to show him that our Dinka was improving, albeit slowly. But he was impressed for another reason.
“It is possible that this man hadn’t smiled all day before he met you,” he said, “and it is possible that if he hadn’t met you he wouldn’t have smiled for the whole day. That is the trauma that we are feeling here in our country.” That is how people in Sudan are broken.
So we learn, day by day, that it is the simple things that matter. That it is greetings and smiles.