Friday, December 30, 2011

A Sudanese Christmas.



Christmas morning started slow and easy. There were no children to wake me at dawn; there were no presents to unwrap; there were no babies to be born, so I slept late.

By the time I got out of bed, the sun was high in the sky casting a thick oppressive heat on all below.

Out my window off on the distance several dozen well-dressed church-goers marched and sang Sudanese Christmas carols to a beating drum. They were quite literally marching off to church. As they paraded passed they picked up people on the way, telling them it was time to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

They marched slowly allowing time for children to tag along. A white flag bopped up and down as they passed.

Later I asked a Sudanese friend about it. He told me that this is the ECS church’s (Episcopal Church of Sudan) way of informing people it’s Christmas.

He explained that they start beating the drums on December 20th, (Yep, they sure did!) to get everyone ready. Then starting on the 23rd, they march and sing each morning announcing the coming celebration. How else would those in the villages have time to make it to town?

I loved this explanation --not only for the festiveness of it all-- but also for how culturally appropriate it is. There are few calenders around here --especially off in the village. So why not drums, songs, and dances?

Since Dr. Tom and I are the only staff/missionaries left on the compound over the holidays, we were also the only ones left to perform church. That means we were alone in singing off-key Christmas carols interspersed with scriptures. It was a short service but it blessed me nonetheless.

Later that afternoon, I arranged to celebrate Christmas like a local. This entailed walking around from house to house, catching up on life and eating cookies. I invited Dr. Tom to join in on the fun.

I missed out on it last year, because I didn’t know I could do it. But this year I was determined to celebrate Sudanese style.

I arranged for my friend Mario to act as my guide. He knows the area well and happily took us to homes of babies I’ve delivered in the last few months.

Me holding Nyankiim, & her mom.
The first baby I saw was by accident, though. A woman stopped me on the street and handed me her toddler, saying “This is your baby. You delivered her. She is named “Daughter of the clinic” or Nyankiim in Dinka.

Holding her doe-eyed tot in my arms put a huge smile on my face. I thanked her for letting me hold her child, we slapped hands, and she walked off in the other direction. What a joy!

As we walked on, I asked Mario who we’d be visiting first.
-- He said, “We are going to see the baby with no knees.”
-- “What? The baby who has no knees?” I repeated, more than a little confused.
-- “Yes. He was born last week...” he added trying to clarify.
Guessing I asked, “Do you mean the baby with the clubbed feet?”
-- “Yes. Yes. The baby with no knees,” he insisted while indicating his own patellae.

When we got to her house, Akoot’s friends asked us inside while they went to get her.

Since the door was only 4 feet high, I had to bend completely in half to enter the tukel. Pink wall hangings covered the interior. Two plastic chairs and a bed with an intricately embroidered sheet made up the sitting room.

I sat on the bed, and Tom and Mario took the chairs.

Akoot breastfeeding & me.
Beads of sweat formed on my forehead, then gathered to stream down my face. Akoot was happy to receive us and came to sit next to me. As we talked, she proudly breastfed her son while her other children bounced around the room in excitement. One kept sneaking up to Tom to inspect his white-ness, then would run away in happy shrieks when seen.

Sweet laughter!

They served us fluffy sugar cookies as we talked about her son’s progress. I’m happy to say he’d doing well.

We didn’t stay long, however, as Mario wanted us to visit his sister.

Atong was a prenatal girl but ended up delivering elsewhere. Her labor started while visiting friends in Wau, and she delivered there.

Atong telling me about her birth.
As we sipped on orange Tang and enjoyed another round of cookies, she told us about the birth.
-- “You were right,” she started, “My boy came out with his legs first.”
Handing me her prenatal book, I read my notes. Her boy had been persistently breech each visit.
-- “Did you go to the hospital to deliver?” I asked, eager to know how it went.
-- “No. No. My friends helped me with the birth. He came out easily.”
-- “In your book it says this was your second breech,” I started then added, “It says your last breech baby didn’t breathe for a long time but is okay. Is that right?”
-- “Yes. But this baby breathed well right away,” she explained.
-- “Oh, good!” I said, bouncing his chubby body in my arms.

Tom & Mario at Atong's house.
Tom watched our interaction on from across the richly draped tukel, then teased, “The babies in Sudan... they come out feet first, hit the ground, and run off!”

He dramatically miming the various actions, causing those who understood English to burst out in fits of laughter. Even though she doesn’t speak any English, Atong chuckled hesitantly with us, knowing she should laugh but not why.

But once Mario translated she laughed very hard --genuinely amused at the idea.

It was a nice visit. I got to see what a middle-class Dinka family’s house might contain. Their wealth was obvious. On a nightstand, a black boom-box with a neat stack of cassette tapes picked up radio waves from Wau.

The DJ bounced from English to Dinka to Arabic with ease, as love ballads set to metal drums filled the air. Mario tried to translate one of these ballads for me. It was something about a woman doing a man some kind of wrong... and how very sad he was.

Kids watching us from the tukel door.
Behind the radio stood a rack with neatly folded wraps and skirts which served as a closet. To the left, dozens of drinking glasses stamped with fading Pepsi logos lined the shelves. Behind me tucked in the opposite corner, a black 1990‘s TV set with bunny-ears collected dust under a mess of bottles and trinkets.

Mario pointed it out and sadly stated, “It was working before... when we had a generator. But now it does not work. No power.” I nodded in understanding. Fuel prices are just too high for such a luxury.

What that television must represent to them though! It’s the first I’ve seen outside of our compound. Just owning one that works must be a powerful statement of wealth.

A baby I delivered 2 mo. ago.
Afterward we visited two other women and their families. Then Mario showed us his tukel and brought us home. It was a wonderful way to learn about my patients and build relationships. I’m so blessed to have gone.

I hope that all of your Christmases were as fun as mine! Merry Christmas... a bit late!