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.