Mud puddles, cattle rustlers, and a country on the brink of change
Articles and Photos by Barry Rodriguez
“Did you enjoy your time in South Sudan?”
I stood in the guesthouse living room, looking into the eyes of my interpreter, Santino. It was my last night in the country and we were saying our goodbyes.
Did I enjoy my time in South Sudan? I didn’t know how to answer. Santino looked at me expectantly while my mind ran through a list of the things I’d experienced over the last four weeks: extreme heat, constant sweat, scarce electricity, bucket baths, dirty water, rats, cockroaches, wasps, a stomach infection, endless teeth-rattling car rides on dirt roads and glacially slow Internet connections. Oh, and did I mention the crushing poverty, widespread corruption and broken education system?
“Um, Santino? I need to be honest with you,” I replied. “No. I did not enjoy my time in South Sudan. But I am so glad I came.”
Santino stared at me with a confused look on his face. And believe me, I realize how crazy I sounded. If my time in South Sudan was so miserable, why in the world would I be glad I came? After such a difficult month, shouldn’t I just shake the dust off my feet, move on and call it a day? Why in the world would I feel grateful for an experience that easily qualifies as the most uncomfortable month of my life?
The only way I can explain it is through a single word: hope. I have hope for the people of South Sudan. After four weeks in the country, I know God is moving in a powerful way. I’ve seen a side of the kingdom of God that most people will never get to see. And I’m grateful for this fresh new perspective.
But I’ll shoot straight with you. That hope wasn’t easy to find. And I might have missed it entirely, if it wasn’t for three things: a sweaty pillow, a dirty puddle, and cow theft.
Let me explain.
Run Down and Weary
My first taste of South Sudan came the moment I stepped off the plane. A furnace-blast of heat hit me like a brick wall. I had a farmer’s tan within seconds. Antiperspirant companies started calling to ask if I’d star in their new commercials. Let’s just say it was hot.
After picking my way through the crowded and chaotic airport, I found my ride: Lawrence and Sunday, two staff members of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), my host ministry for the month.
As we drove through the capital, Juba, I was struck by how run down and weary everything looked. At one point, Sunday pointed out her window and said, “That’s the rich part of town. Only very wealthy people live there.” I looked where she pointed to see a few walls topped with broken glass and a smoldering trash heap.
Ok, I thought. This is going to be… different.
We wound our way through late-morning traffic and into Gudele, a community on the edge of Juba. Looking at Gudele on a map, all you can see is an endless grid of dirt roads and homes stretching off in every direction. The neighborhood has gone from uninhabited bush to sprawling suburb in less than two years, a microcosm of the greater rural to urban shift happening in the country. Since independence in 2011, the new capital of Juba has become a major economic hub. People from all over the new nation have flocked to the city in search of prosperity.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve found it.
Click here to see a satellite image of Gudele.
We finally arrived at the house where I’d be living during my month in South Sudan. We walked into the dark building and Lawrence opened the door to a bedroom. He poked his head in and said, “Here’s where you’ll be staying.”
I looked around the room. A single window, covered in metal bars for security, provided the only source of light. There wasn’t much to illuminate. A bed, a mosquito net, a footstool and a large, industrial-size fan were the only pieces of furniture I could see.
It was pretty hot and steamy inside, but I was relieved to see the fan. As long as I had that, I was sure I could handle the heat. Little did I know, I was about to receive my first lesson about the realities of life in South Sudan.
Just a decoration
As I quickly discovered, the infrastructure in the country is almost non-existent. At last count, there were less than 40 miles of paved roads in the entire country. After years of heavy rains, the “highways” between cities look more like dirt-bike tracks.
Because the country is landlocked and the roads are notoriously bad, fuel is astronomically expensive. At one gas station, I worked out the price for fuel to be around $12 a gallon (this in a country where the main export is oil!).
Since there is literally no power grid to draw from, almost all of the electricity in Juba comes from individual diesel generators. Thus, electricity in South Sudan is a luxury, and I had to get used to using it only 1-2 hours each evening. The big fan in my room? Nothing more than a decoration 22 hours a day.
Long story short, I got really good at sleeping in a pool of my own sweat. My room was stifling. 85-90 degrees at night. I slept in 3-hour increments. Each night, I woke up multiple times to roll over to the dry side of the bed and swap out my dripping wet foam pillow for a relatively dry one (I don’t know if you can call it “beauty sleep,” but I did lose a ton of weight).
The highlight of every morning was my shower, when I could wash the night’s sweat off my body with a bucket of murky water from a basin outside. Although there was a “bathroom” (a moldy closet with a drain in the ground), there was no running water. Another lesson I quickly learned: the country has yet to develop a water or sewage system of any kind.
As the month went on, I found myself wondering why the infrastructure of South Sudan was so broken. I mean, the country has areas of very fertile farmland. The massive oil fields are a resource just waiting to be exploited. Sure, being landlocked is a challenge for any country, but Rwanda is landlocked and it’s one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
Why is South Sudan so underdeveloped?
This was a question I asked myself over and over as I traveled around the country. From the cool, green south to the hot, arid north, South Sudan seemed mired in an insurmountable swamp of injustice. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
But then I had a realization – a small “aha” moment that helped me understand the reasons behind South Sudan’s lack of development. It happened during my visit to the small northern village of Lietnhom.
Click here to read my travel journal “Spending Time” about my crazy journey to Lietnhom.
See a brief glimpse into the work of ALARM in the village of Lietnhom, South Sudan
Lietnhom is just about as poor of a place as you can get. Located smack in the middle of the dry northern regions of South Sudan, most villagers there struggle to get by on a few staple crops and expensive shipments of food from other parts of the country. Although many of the people I met had relatively substantial wealth in cattle, they still struggled with disease, crime and a lack of education.
The civil war with the north (which only just ended in 2005) continues to take its toll. Because it was so close to the border, the village of Lietnhom was hit hard by the fighting. It is still in the process of rebuilding.
One day, my friend Kazito, one of the pastors being trained by ALARM, took me to see how people in the region gather water when they don’t have access to wells. He had described people collecting water from large pits in the ground and I was intrigued by what he meant.
As the afternoon began to cool into evening, we hopped on his motorcycle. Zipping down narrow dirt paths, we passed huts, cows, and numerous naked toddlers, staring in bewilderment at the khawaja (white guy) hanging on for dear life.
Finally, we pulled up to a large depression in the ground about 60 feet in diameter. We walked up to the lip of the hole and looked into the pit below. A woman in a faded blue dress stood waist deep in a muddy hole, holding a plastic container filled with murky water.
As I watched, she crouched down with a small cup and skimmed a bit of relatively clear water off the top of a brown puddle. She poured the water into a plastic bucket and repeated the process. This, I realized, was the water she and her family would use to drink, cook and clean that evening.
“This is bad,” Kazito said, shaking his head. “This water is no good.”
Yeah, no kidding, I thought.
As we drove to several other water pits and met other women collecting muddy, parasite-infested water for their families, I asked Kazito why people didn’t just sell a cow or two to pay for a legitimate well.
First, he explained, the only way it would work is for several families to pitch in together. Getting drilling equipment to such a remote region is expensive. But nobody will do that because they don’t want to give up a single cent of their precious wealth (i.e. their cows).
Don’t they realize the health of their families would be worth the investment? They don’t have enough education to understand the causes of disease.
Why don’t village elders band together to get the entire community engaged? There is too much corruption for them to work together.
What about non-profits? Foreign aid? The government? What organization will spend thousands of dollars to bring clean water to a handful of families in the desert?
The Bigger Picture
This was when it hit me. This pattern of seeming insurmountable problems; I’d seen it before. The unemployed fathers in Juba who couldn’t afford to send their kids to school. The war-orphaned street kids in Yei scraping by with odd jobs to feed their younger siblings. The corrupt officials who expected me to pay them a bribe at the Wau bus station.
Each one of these problems is a part of a larger cycle. Each one feeds into another aspect of poverty, and is itself fed by hunger, disease and crime. But these weren’t small-scale problems. These weren’t just mini-injustices expressing themselves in individual communities. I was seeing the effects of an entire country trapped in the cycle of poverty.
It was like the light had turned on. Standing at the edge of a pit on the outskirts of a remote village, my eyes were opened. This was more than just a lack of clean water for one family. This muddy water was connected to a lack of education which was connected to a broken agricultural system which was connected to a struggling export economy which was connected to an abysmal highway system which was connected to a lack of electricity which was connected to corrupt government officials. On and on it went.
This was one of the most comprehensive cycles of poverty I’d ever seen.
All of a sudden I had a new context to understand the realities I’d witnessed throughout the country. High infant mortality leads to an unsustainable birth rate, illness and malnutrition lead to a lack of education, and because of cultural norms, even those who do earn a livable income inevitably get sucked right back into poverty by having to care for their entire extended family.
In South Sudan, the entire country is caught in the cycle.
After coming to these conclusions, seeing just how systemic the problems of South Sudan really are, I admit to feeling a bit hopeless. Usually on World Next Door trips I find hope practically bursting at the seams, but here? I couldn’t find anything to grab on to.
My only option was to dig in and try to understand what ALARM was doing in the country. I had just seen their tremendous work in Rwanda (see WND Magazine, Issue 4), so I was sure some good stuff would be happening in South Sudan as well. At least, I hoped it was.
Like their ministry in Rwanda, I assumed ALARM would be doing a lot of community development work in South Sudan: things like trade schools, micro-finance initiatives, childhood education, that sort of thing. And they are doing this to some degree (see my video about Lietnhom on the next page), but most of the work ALARM is doing in South Sudan focuses simply on training pastors.
I wanted to see this work firsthand, so I spent a week visiting ALARM’s main training school, the Christian Leadership Institute of South Sudan (CLISS) in Yei. My visit happened to be during one of their training sessions, so I got to see what these pastors from around the country were learning.
The town of Yei is green, peaceful and about 15 degrees cooler than Juba. After sweating like a wookie in a sauna for two weeks, the change of scenery was heavenly. But after meeting some of the pastors and sitting in on a couple of their classes, I found myself a bit confused.
I mean, at first glance, it looked like ALARM was missing the point in South Sudan. Why train pastors with theological concepts when there are people starving? Why educate them in biblical interpretation when violence and insecurity are such pressing social matters? Isn’t it more important to care for people’s immediate needs first, and then discuss eschatology?
I wondered all of this until I overheard a discussion about cattle rustling. Yes, that kind of cattle rustling. The “Garn. Git outta here ‘fore I call the sheriff” kind.
Rustlers in the Pews
One sunny afternoon in Yei, I sat down with the CLISS pastors between classes. They were scattered in a loose circle of plastic chairs in the shade of a giant mango tree. I grabbed an empty chair and listened in. By the time I joined them, they were already deep in discussion.
“The Bible says do not steal. Look. Right here in Exodus 20. It’s one of the ten commandments. Just tell them that.”
“Yes, but they don’t believe it’s stealing.”
“No no no… You’re both missing the point. It’s murder that we should be talking about. That’s the real problem here.”
I pulled one of the students aside and asked what everyone was discussing. He told me, “We are talking about what to do with cattle rustlers in our congregations.”
“Why?” I asked, “Is this a big problem in the church here?”
“Oh, yes. Very much,” he told me. “This problem is everywhere.”
Bullets and Brides
As the students eventually explained to me, cattle rustling is a major issue in South Sudan, especially within the church. Despite being ostensibly “Christian,” many church-goers participate in this illegal act. But it goes far deeper than simply stealing cows. In fact, it has a lot to do with weddings. And murder.
Here’s how it happens. Getting married in South Sudan is no easy task. The bride-price to be paid to the woman’s father is 100 cows, the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. Unless a man is very wealthy, he can’t come close to affording this. So most unmarried men just get jobs and live with their parents, right? Wrong. You see, most men who aren’t married become laughingstocks. In this culture, marriage is in many ways a rite of passage into adulthood.
So what does a desperate man do when he needs 100 cows? Well, he steals them from someone else, of course. But there’s a problem with this. After decades of civil war, there are tons of guns in South Sudan. Many landowners defend their property with automatic weapons. So the potential cattle rustler needs to come prepared. He takes a bunch of armed friends along with him to do the deed.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what happens next. Bullets are fired. People are killed. Regardless of who ends up with the cows, murder and death are all too often at the end of this simple crime.
The Pieces Fit
As the discussion continued, the pastors talked about the issue from all angles. They discussed what it would take to change the hearts of young men in their churches. They spoke about the need for discipleship. They even talked about the importance of working with local village leaders to create a comprehensive mandate for lower bride prices.
Although few concrete conclusions were reached in that discussion, I walked away completely astonished. I actually understood. The puzzle pieces finally fit together and I had found the hope I was looking for.
Cattle rustling, murder, corruption, poverty, and violence are all systemic issues. They’re cultural and economic and moral problems. No government initiative or international non-profit can fix any one of them. No amount of foreign aid or military intervention or diplomacy is going to break these cycles of injustice.
But these pastors could.
That’s what hit me under the mango tree. These pastors – this ragtag group of poorly educated, unrefined, inexperienced pastors – actually had a shot.
Who else had the capacity to walk alongside community members from their birth to their graves? Who else had both the authority of a leader and the accessibility of a next-door neighbor? Who else had the ear of civic leaders, village elders and everyday farmers alike? Who else had an existing community structure to draw on for poverty alleviation, education and orphan care?
These pastors were the key. Their churches were the hope I was looking for. And they are the ones ALARM has chosen to invest in.
All of a sudden, equipping these leaders with biblical interpretation skills didn’t seem so out of place. Getting their feet firmly established in theological principles wasn’t a waste of time.
Give these pastors the tools they need to lead well and their congregations will be transformed. Let these congregations influence their villages and their communities will be transformed. Let these communities begin to change their regions, and South Sudan will be transformed.
The Local Church is the hope of the world, and these leaders are the tip of the spear.
When I left South Sudan a few weeks after visiting Yei, I held tightly to this powerful hope. It wasn’t a lot. I wasn’t overflowing with optimism and excitement. But I was confident that ALARM is dedicating its resources in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Now, I won’t lie and say I had a blast in South Sudan. Taking a tepid bucket bath with brown river water (and being drenched in sweat again before even toweling off) isn’t my idea of a good time. Generally, I prefer not to have rats jumping on my bed in the middle of the night. I never did learn to enjoy “combo,” the slimy green food that looked suspiciously like elephant snot.
But I will never regret the month I spent there. I had the phenomenal privilege of witnessing the early years of a growing spiritual movement. I got to meet leaders who will one day be changing the face of their country’s Church.
Some might see a mountain of insurmountable challenges in South Sudan. And they’re right to see it that way. But I serve a mountain-moving God, and I’ve met His agents of change.
At one point on my trip, I got to meet a young man who had recently settled down on the outskirts of Juba. In his enthusiasm for the future, he had planted two small mango trees on his property. As his kids ran in and out of the house, I asked him how long it would take for the trees to bear fruit.
“Oh, about five or six years,” he told me.
Wow. Talk about a long-term view. Right now, the saplings are pretty worthless. No fruit. No shade. They’re not even strong enough to support a hammock. But this is only the beginning. In time, the trees will grow.
What a perfect analogy for what God is doing in South Sudan. Like the baby mango trees in the dirt, it may take years to see fruit in this country. But the people of South Sudan are resilient. Despite war and poverty and disease, the kingdom of God is spreading. In the midst of corruption and greed, servant leaders are on the move.
The Church of God is growing in South Sudan. Like a sapling tree, it’s spreading its branches to the sky and shooting roots deep into the ground. Powerful leaders are being raised up. Despite setbacks and challenges and financial hurdles, ALARM is pushing forward, making sure this growth continues.
Transformation won’t happen overnight. Systems of injustice are stubborn. But one fact remains; the local church is the hope of the world, and it’s not going anywhere.
Click here to find out how you can become involved.