On Not Being Curmudgeonly

“Through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, help us to overcome hurt, hostility and bitterness in our heart”   Prayer for the Republic of South Sudan

Today, after exchanging some money, i walked to the airport. This took maybe twenty minutes and the sun wasn’t too hot, but this is not something i normally do. Let me back up a bit & start with some background.

I have been struggling lately with feelings of frustration & bitterness toward the host culture that i currently find myself in, that being the predominantly Dinka culture of Rumbek, Lakes State, Republic of South Sudan. I had been feeling these feelings so strongly that on our most recent “out week” in Nairobi, i stayed longer to get counselling. I’m back in Rumbek now, still easing myself back into life, doing my best not to fall into the same bogs of bitterness & frustration.

Now usually if i’m traveling not by car (i.e. on foot or by bicycle) i’ll put on my headphones & listen to the ol’ iPod, drowning out the khawaja-khawaja (foreigner-foreigner) shouts of children & sometimes adults. As luck would have it, Heather happened to have the iPod with her on her parish visit with Kaitlyn. Note—surprisingly, i might add—that i didn’t begin the previous sentence with “unfortunately” or another negative qualifier. I didn’t do this because if i had had the iPod, i may not have met Mawan.

As i was walking down one of the more major thoroughfares of Rumbek, i noticed in my peripheral vision a figure coming up in stride from behind me. Hello, he said. How did i find Rumbek, he wanted to know. I was courteous but a bit guarded in my answers, expecting this to be another of the many common conversations i & other expats have had:

Sudanese: Hello.
Expat: Hello.
S: How do you like Rumbek/Sudan/Africa?
E: Oh it’s nice. It’s hot.
S: Yes, yes. Very hot. Where are you from?
E: I’m from _________.
S: Ah, i’ve always wanted to go to _________. Can you help me to go?/You buy me a ticket to go to _________.

Et cetera, et cetera. Ad nauseum.

This, however is not what happened. What Mawan said was this: I want to expand my worldview, to travel. I would like your advice. You have made it here from Canada. How did you do that?

Sorry? What? I think i actually had to ask for clarification a few times because i don’t think i’ve been asked this question in my whole time in South Sudan. My frustration & bitterness was disarmed by this curious young Sudanese man.

So, i told him that i had ended up here in Rumbek by volunteering with MCC (i think i may have just said NGO; most everyone i’ve met here has no idea what MCC is, let alone Mennonites). Do you think that i could do such a thing? Mawan wanted to know. We discussed the feasibility for a bit, i trying to encourage him saying that if he wanted it & tried hard, perhaps he could find an organization with which he could volunteer (i didn’t mention YAMEN! as i don’t think it has opened the program to South Sudan, yet…).

After a few minutes Mawan informed me that his house was just to the left of where we were. We said our goodbyes & parted ways.

What struck me afterward was how much i felt that Mawan & i were equals. And that that feeling—that space for equality—was largely created by Mawan. Not me. He caught me completely off guard. I was disarmed by his curiosity & his openness to hearing about my experience. He did not seem to care whether or not i had money or resources to help him achieve his goal. (Whether he did or not could be debated, but regardless, he didn’t ask.)

Mawan—& others like him—gives me hope.

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