Retrospect #2: Sudan

6 06 2010

Nyongrial women

It has been three months since I returned to Kampala from Sudan, and I’m still trying to fully process what I saw and learned during that week.  Let me first say that my observations are entirely in hindsight and therefore more editorial than objective, but I’ll try to curb my propensity for nostalgia. 

I admit now that most of my time in Sudan was spent in a cultural-default-mode: in being observant I was never able to fully participate in the events surrounding me, and in preparing myself for “anything-goes” I might have missed those events which were truly amazing.  These memories, for better or for worse, are what I can recall now.  I think they are those moments when the real beauty of the place cut through my “default” mindset. 


When we arrived in Sudan I gladly welcomed the dry heat. I never realized how comfortable I feel in hot weather until coming to Africa, especially when humidity is not a factor. But eventually the continuous heat turned oppressive as the week progressed. Our time working in the village shifted from an indoor hut to an outdoor shade tree as slight variations in temperature made one spot cooler than the other. If not for the constant wind we might have been severely less motivated to complete our work. 

At night the heat stopped but the wind didn’t, giving us all a respite from the brutality of the daylight hours. On our first night in the village a team member seemingly joked that we should move our cots out of the huts and rig up the mosquito nets under a nearby shade tree. This might have been the best decision, design or otherwise, that we made that week.  Sleeping outside was a highlight of the trip, and we seemed to have a full moon every night. The wind would invariably kick up around 3am and knock over some of our nets; the birds would only stop squawking when the donkeys started braying; and some team members didn’t quite fit in their cots.  I hardly slept, but they were enjoyable nights for me. 




In all honesty, the work we did there would was incredibly humbling.  As we progressed with our architectural master plan we realized the likelihood that our design would be completed was quite low.  The scope of the ministry’s needs is incredible (a primary school, a secondary school, a clinic, and an orphanage); but budgetary, construction, and regional constraints limited our focus to providing immediate and efficient design solutions.  It was a challenge for me, but I believe it’s the first project I’ve been a part of where every decision was prefaced with the sincere consideration of “can we actually do this?”  Those decisions usually included all disciplines crowded into a single hut, depending on each other to find those solutions. 

Perhaps the large project scope is best illustrated by the vast nothingness of our site.  The elders who showed us the land had no way to denote property lines other than using large sticks placed into the cracked ground every few dozen meters.  The most definitive edge of our site was a dirt road which bordered the Sobat River.  The opposite side was a surreal horizon of flat, black cotton soil where lions roam “far, far away.”  Every drawing done that week depended on a single Tree and Hut as our landmarks. 

Black cotton

We worked with a dynamic zoom-in-zoom-out lens, wanting to match the ministries overall vision while providing real and achievable goals for construction.  We were told by the ministry leaders that if we build it, they will come (“they” meaning around 850 primary and secondary school students).  But the emptiness of the site required us to temper our master planning ambitions and to instead consider the foundation-to-roof construction of a single classroom building.  I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about site design one minute, then purlin dimensions the next.  In the paper-architecture world of design school, my professors always stressed the importance of jumping scales to stretch your design muscles and I was glad to find that, even in the most “real” and restrictive of situations, they were right. 


We now come to the point where I confess I wish I knew more about civil and structural engineering.  Every architectural decision was made only after receiving an answer from the engineers.  I was able to contribute to an overall vision for the site – something important to have for a ministry undertaking a serious recovery mission.  But in a place where simple infrastructure is a luxury, engineers have the resources to truly break ground first. 

During the week, the civil team received the equipment necessary to begin drilling a bore hole.  Currently, about 1 out of every 7 kids in the village is sick from water-born disease, and each of them will soon receive access to clean water.  In addition to Tree and Hut,  there is now Bore Hole. 

The latest update of the bore hole is that it is now drilled but not yet running.  Please, please pray for completion and maintenance of the bore hole and for its use in the village. 

Volunteer civil engineer



As a group of white professionals on the border of North and South Sudan, it was difficult to not draw a crowd wherever we went.  Many of the local politicians in the region were aware of the free publicity of our crowd and we consequentially heard many stump speeches for the April elections.  Our caravan was nothing less than a spectacle, especially during our ride back from the village where, after the tread of our bus tire tore off we noticed that our escorting vehicle of ministry leaders and politicians had run out of gas.  Our driver then roped their car to our sideways-leaning bus.  Every now and then we noticed the absence of headlights behind us and turned to find the rope dragging behind the bus.  We then turned around to find our beloved politicians. 

But our conspicuousness invited a healthy curiosity on both sides.  A game ensued where, as we walked around the village, we were continually followed by a group of kids about ten steps behind us.  In an act of brilliance, another intern took this opportunity to quickly turn around and run toward the gaggle of now-screaming kids.  When we continued on our way, they only grew in numbers and walked closer to us. 

It  was easy to accept this attention when I knew it came from the pure gratitude and sincere interest of the Nyongiral people.  They wished to honor us because they felt honored by our presence, and our stay was a lesson in receiving hospitality.  Each night the men from the ministry set up our beds and nets.  We were heartily cooked for every day.  We were greeted by every member at the village church.  A woman waited for hours during our meeting with the ministry to present us with a chicken – an extravagant gift in appreciation of our work.  It was delicious.  

Woman with chicken

Our last day in the village the elders slaughtered a bull on our behalf.  We were invited to the ceremony and, while I wish I could say it was a revelatory or extraordinary cultural experience, it was simply (and wonderfully) entertaining.  As the men tied the bull and sharpened the knife and as the women began to dance and yell, our crowd of people tightened around the slaughtering post to try to get a close look.  But the first sight of blood caused a ripple through the crowd as we collectively and swiftly moved away from the animal.   It also was delicious, and though we were served first among the villagers it was wonderful to see the entire community share in that single and plentiful meal. 

Bull slaughter

We were honored before we left with a closing ceremony, where we were dressed by the local officials in Sudanese cloth and were given certificates of their appreciation.  We were urged by the locals to come back and visit, that one week was not enough time.  Though I was ready for a hot shower, I had to agree.  In my time here I’ve been told repeatedly by locals that the time we spend is not enough – that six months in Uganda is hardly enough to know the place, that a week in Sudan is no time at all, and that a day at a village church is barely hello.  It’s hard to understand in a culture where our datebooks are divided into 15 minute intervals, but in a place with no cyclical seasons or harvests, where time is internal and never valued over relationships (or just about anything else), my time here is very short. 

Closing ceremony

At the end of the ceremony, after all of our names were called and we were photographed and joyfully laughed at for our wonderful conspicuousness, there was still someone left to honor more than the foreign white people.   Chigai Lual, the ministry leader who had been relocated to Canada and was returning to his homeland after seven years, who had organized for these professionals to help provide water and education, who had loved his family and friends enough to work every day since leaving to come back, was surrounded and kissed and carried by his beloved people.  Watching their completeness in being reunited was like watching the joy of the prodigal son and his father, but this man was faithful and he did not return empty-handed.  It was a beautiful moment to watch, and I’ve never more grateful to be inconspicuous. 



In Uganda, there is a certain generation that remembers the horrors of Idi Amin, and there is another generation that lives without the consequences of remembering.  In Sudan, everyone remembers war.  It’s presence isn’t just in stories and in the broken villages – it’s written on people’s faces.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to live with that cloud of memory and yet fight for progress, however slowly progress may come.  I think this is what is meant by fighting the good fight, and what touched me most about my short, short time in Sudan – the strange and beautiful mix of burden and strength. 

Please pray with me for everything small and large that is happening in Sudan.  For this school to begin construction and to nurture the next generation that does not need to know war.  For God’s hand of healing on the minds and hearts of those who do know war.  For the bore hole’s use, maintenance, and provision for clean water.  For a furthering of His Kingdom in the continual tension between Christians and Muslims on the border in Malakal.  And for peace during next year’s referendum for the separation of North and South Sudan.  Without that stability, very little of our work can move forward. 

The tree of life

Thanks for sticking through this entire post.  Next up: Retrospect #3: Work; or, How You Can Take the Girl Out of America, But You Can’t Take America Out of the Girl




One response

7 06 2010
Nancy Sullivan

I check everyday for new postings about your work. You are a beautiful writer. The people of Sudan looked at you as a sign of hope and showed gratitude even though, as you say your group was somewhat of a spectacle. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all look at each other with those eyes instead of “you’re different so you must be bad” eyes? I will be sure to print this out and get it to Grandma. We are all so proud of you. Take care!
Aunt Nancy

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