Thursday, April 12, 2012

War on the Horizon.

Whispers of war between Sudan and South Sudan echo in my ears. My heart aches. My bones shake.

Straining my eyes for a better view, turning my ears to the faintest rumble,  I crouch in closer. Could war really be coming? Lord, no. Please, no.

What are these whispers?
Sudan is building its army.
Disputed towns have been sacked.
Peace negotiations have been suspended.

Please pray for the peace of South Sudan. Pray for this fledgling nation to find its feet. Also pray for Sudan. Pray that peace would rule the hearts of its leaders and that love would lace their actions.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Walking the Streets.

On my last day in Tonj, I went for one last walk in town. I wanted to get a few gifts --if they were to be found-- but I also wanted one last goodbye.

As my friend Mario and I walked about, familiar faces greeted me loudly in the market. Women I’d welcomed into the antenatal program, and who even delivered with me, called me over to their stalls to greet me.

When they saw my camera, they insisted on a photo. Gathering their children in close and squaring their shoulders proudly, they stood and sat stock still for me “to make a design” of them.

I would have stayed to chat, but it was already late. Mario needed to give me something at his sister’s house. So we waved our goodbyes.

As I walked past, a wrinkled woman motioned insistently that I had my fly down. When I checked to see if she was right, laughter rippled through the crowd.

It took me a few seconds to realize she was teasing me, but then I laughed along with her another wave of laughter shook the crowd.

In South Sudan, teasing is a national sport!

Mario called me through the crowd, impatient to get to his sister’s house, so I waved my final goodbyes and walked on.

Mario has worked with In Deed and Truth ministries for years, most recently as a translator and clinic health worker. Although he is young, his English is great.

Over the years, he has been a good friend to me. When I told him I would be leaving earlier than June, he shook his head in protest and said, “I am not comfortable with this...” I initially laughed at his choice of words, but they fit somehow.
    --Changing countries, packing bags, saying goodbye... I’m not comfortable with it either.
As we walked, Mario veered me in the direction of his sister’s house. It was late in the afternoon by then, and she was doing laundry. When she saw us, she wiped her hands on her skirt and then extended her still wet hands with us in greeting.

On our arrival, her children stirred from their naps, and we sat in the plastic chairs next to them. As we talked, they milled about trying not to stare.

Mario explained to his sister that I was leaving early --the next day in fact! Surprise flashed across her face, then she quietly excused herself, saying she had “something small” to get me.

Turning away, she hurried inside her tukel. Meanwhile, Mario and I played with the slingshot I had just bought off a kid in the market.

Made of recycled bike tires, it was surprisingly accurate. But Mario insisted on shooting the goats. Poor, defenseless goats!

A few minutes later, Mario’s sister returned with my gift --a brightly embroidered sheet with two intricately stitched peacocks facing each other. She wanted me to have something to remind me of Sudan.... as if I could forget!

I thanked her over and over, gushing over the beauty and skill involved.

What an honor!

Honestly, saying goodbye has not been easy. The tears come at random times, surprising me by their inconvenient warmth.

The Sudanese --like most African cultures-- do not cry. It is seen as weak and portrays fear rather than love. So in my goodbyes, I did everything I could to not weep.

But I failed.

I failed with silent, languid tears. Large and heavy, they ran down my cheeks before I could bite them back. Excusing them with a wry smile, I tried to explain to my African friends that it was my way of saying I loved them.

They nodded that they understood... but looked away for my benefit.

Three of my translators tried not to cry with me as we said our goodbyes. They succeeded. I failed.

One privately called me aside to say goodbye, saying, “We will not forget you, Akuac.” As we spoke, my eyes filled with tears and I turned away.

Yes. Those are the words I was looking for...

South Sudan, I will not forget you.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


When I got back to Tonj to pack my things, I met Annie. She is one of the Kenyan nurse-midwife hired to replace me. That first night I didn’t have much time to talk, but by morning I was bursting with things to say.

It was handing-over time.

But how do I tell her two years worth of lessons in three days? How do I show her all the birthing positions and Dinka preferences? How do I explain the superstitions in such a way that she’d understand?


But I was soon to learn that Annie was as keen to learn as I was to teach.

What a blessing!

That first morning as I walked Annie through the prenatal system and explained the medicines used, I rambled on and on about the beliefs and practices I’d seen over the years.

I wanted so much for her to learn and accept the Dinka’s traditions. Knowing that the biggest hurdle she’d encounter would be the Dinka birthing positions, I started there.

-- “The women here have many birthing preferences,” I started to explain, “If you respect them, they will flock to deliver with you. If you don’t, they’ll disappear.”
She nodded pleasantly in response, then asked, “What are these preferences?”
-- “Well... to start, they give birth on their knees...” I paused to watch her face, knowing full-well that such an idea can be strange for most African-trained nurses.
-- “Their knees!” she half laughed, half gauffed, “Why do they do that?”

Annie and Margaret during devotions.
I explained the whys and hows, even falling to the floor to show her the crouch-squat myself. She smiled while I spoke, shaking her head in disbelief.

-- “Okay,” she finally agreed, “but I have never delivered a baby like that... how do you do it?”
Relieved that she was at least willing, I explained the hows and what-nots involved.

She listened attentively, but I could see it was well past her comfort zone. Finally, I added, “Perhaps we’ll have a birth together before I leave. If so, call for me and I’ll show you what I mean.”

She readily agreed and I continued her orientation. There was so much to tell her... and so little time.

I prayed we’d have a birth together for two reasons. One, I desperately wanted to show her how easy it was to deliver a baby in that position. And two, I selfishly desired one last birth in South Sudan.

Our chance came the following night, when I heard a slight knock at my door. It was Annie.
-- “A mama has come in labor,” she started. “I know it’s late, but I’d love if you’d show me how things are done.”
To hear her speak in such a way melted my heart. I could see that she genuinely wanted to work in a culturally sensitive way. Smiling, I agreed to come right over.

My scrubs were packed so I slipped into my jeans and headed over.

Sure it was 1 a.m. and I was tired from my constant packing, but I could think of no place I’d rather be.

Blessed by her eagerness, I talked Annie through the birthing customs as we labor watched. Describing a kneeling birth is harder than I thought. It’s truly a watch-what-I-do kind of thing.

So as the laboring mama progressed from 8 cm to fully, I taught Annie the questions to ask and how to set up the room.

Our labor, Ajak, was expecting her 8th child. Her first seven were all delivered at home, but this time she had decided to deliver with us. I was honored by this choice as it revealed the depth of trust we’d developed in the community over the years.

Her friend, a woman I’d seen many times before, acted as her doula. She never left her side, encouraging Dinka style with sharp comments and disapproving clicks of her tongue.

Ajak’s labor was slow to progress, and her doula-friend disapproved. She kept clicking her tongue impatiently, and speaking gruff remarks. After the third negative comment, I had had enough and I turned to her and asked, “Why are you so upset?”

She looked at me in confusion, so I continued on. “Right now, Ajak is having a normal labor. Everything is okay. I need you to know that so you do not worry... or make her worry.”

I smiled politely while I spoke, but my words were sharp. “Please, if you stay in this room, be happy with your words... I don’t want her to think things are wrong when they are not.”

Her doula friend smiled in agreement, explaining she was tired. Looking around the room, we all laughed with her, and agreed that three o-clock in the morning was rough.

Annie silently took it all in. No doubt watching Ajak labor on the floor was new to her, but she embraced it.

I loved her for this.

We talked softly as Ajak moved about. After several hours, she was finally ready to push. So I asked her, “How do you want to deliver --on the bed or on the floor?”
She looked up at me in surprise, eyes flashing in relief and respect. But she didn’t answer. I could see she was hesitant to speak, so I asked again.
-- “Ajak, do you prefer to give birth on your back or kneeling?”
-- “Kneeling,” she whispered with a smile. Her whole body relaxed at the thought.

I smiled with her, then glanced in Annie’s direction.

When it came time to push, Ajak started crawling the room in pain and complaining her hips ached. So I applied pressure and massaged where I could. Eventually she fell to her hands and knees and rocked a bit.

It was close.

Annie sat in the corner of the room wide-eyed in wonder. She looked hesitant and nervous, but hid it well. Ajak was silent but active --very active.

Suddenly there was a noticeable change in her grunts. It was time.

Since she was already on the floor, I slipped a pad under her and seconds later her little girl was in my hands.

I had Ajak sit down on the pad to wait for the placenta, as our translator milled about handing me things.

Her girl was healthy and strong; she yelped sporadically as I wiped her off. Trying to keep her warm, I covered her tiny frame and waited.

As we waited I continued to teach Annie the Dinka birthing traditions (as there are as many for after the birth as there are during).

With time, the placenta was born and we cut the cord. Weighing her and wrapping her tightly in a blanket, I handed her over to Ajak's doula-friend.

She started complaining that she had spittle in her mouth, but then caught herself. Apologizing, she stopped half way through and smiled at me. “I won’t be negative anymore,” she told me with a smile that reached her eyes, “because I see that with you I don’t have to worry.”

What a blessing!

I continued to teach Annie the ropes while Ajak breastfed on the floor. At one point, she looked up at me glowing and said, “I’m so happy.”

I smiled back and told her I was happy too --so very happy!

I’m happy I got to be a part of one last birth before I left. I’m happy I got to show Annie the typical birthing style as well. But more than anything, I’m happy Ajak got to deliver in a way that made her happy.

Lord, bless Annie and Axilla (the other midwife that came a bit later on). Help them to love the women well. Teach them how to be culturally sensitive to the Dinka traditions. Bless them, Lord. And use them powerfully for Your glory. Amen.

Ajak was my 230th birth in South Sudan. I’m going to miss them.