Last Sunday afternoon I was invited to the home of the Alex family. My friend Victoria had invited me to come after mass, saying that her mother wanted to plait my hair, meaning put it into African braids. I was more than willing to let her play with my hair and to spend a little bit of time outside of our compound. The afternoon quickly became evening, and at the day’s end, I was sure it’d been not only one of my favorite experiences up-to-date, but one of the most memorable afternoons that I’d have in my South Sudanese adventure.
The Alex children are some of the most active in our parish and school and many of them are very close to our Salesian community. They live only a short walk from our compound, and participate in almost every activity we offer. Of their 12 children, six are enrolled in our Primary School, three of the boys are altar servers and come for daily morning mass and games every evening, two girls are in the choir, and all of them are darling. Mary, the mother of their family, is the head of the Parent Teacher Association in our school and is an all-around great mother. She has raised all her children to be responsible, courteous, and respectful, while still being free-spirited, joyful kids. They are some of the best around.
After arriving on the compound, Victoria immediately showed Cait and me to her room, which was one of the nicest we’d seen. She then served us a full lunch, of chicken, rice, and bread. (Absolutely incredible because a) people here never eat lunch, they eat one meal a day at dinner time; b) people here rarely get bread, a particular treat; and c) people here NEVER eat meat, except on holidays and feast days. Her generosity and love towards us is extraordinary.) With extremely full bellies, the hair plaiting commenced, taking over two hours to complete. We had such a nice time throughout, the whole family sat in the little house we were plaiting inside, talking, singing, taking photos, playing cards, and even a football match transpired. Mary was so sweet, I think she really enjoyed herself too.
After my fantastic, new hairstyle was finished, the family invited me to sit and spend the rest of the afternoon. We sat preparing supper together: peeling peanuts, de-stemming spinach leaves, grinding oil fruits, and enjoying good company and good conversation. They walked me through their gorgeous garden, full of pineapples, guava fruits, bananas, cassava, and so much more. The boys played ball in the yard, the men worked on the motorbike, and everyone was just together.
The Good: Family life. Family is the center of everything here. Generations and extended families live all together in one place, sharing everything and enjoying life together. They’re without distraction. The kids can’t jump in the car and head out with friends, to sports practice, or anywhere else really. They don’t plop in front of the television or go hide at the other end of the house. They don’t have iPhones, facebook, or digital technology to hide behind. They’re together, all the time. Sure they have some activity that take them away from the house for a few hours a day, but otherwise, they’re enjoying the simple companionship of the people who are most important.
The Sad: The stark contrast between men and women. Seeing the family unit up close that day confirmed what we’d heard again and again, and witnessed from afar, about the expectations of women versus men. After the hair braiding had finished, all the girls, from Mama Mary down through the 6-year-old, Cecilia, spent the afternoon preparing the evening meal. That is, all except for Sarah, who spent over two hours ironing all of her siblings’ school uniforms. When Mr. Alex saw me helping with cooking and learning from his girls, he first asked how long I planned on staying in South Sudan, and then, after I said that I didn’t know, he quickly remarked, “I want to marry you to my son.” Nice. While I imagine a compliment exists somewhere behind those words, I knew he’d said it because he saw I was capable of doing housework. Meanwhile, all the boys were enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was enjoying; they were all together, sharing good conversation and good company. (The Alex’s all speak English well, which is a rarity and a pleasure for me!) But while the girls spent their time doing chores, the boys were playing games, running around, and being kids. This picture is the cultural norm, the expectation of a South Sudanese wife and daughter. The women carry the water, care for the children, prepare all the food, do all the cleaning. The husband buys his wife from her parents at a high price of dowry, and from then onward, they are expected to fulfill a very demanding role. This mentality must somehow change, but it will be a slow process.
The beautiful: A new home. I enjoyed all the events of the day, all the togetherness, the games and the good company. But what elevated the day from just a nice time to one embellished on my heart was the welcome and the acceptance of the Alex family. Mary spent half her day braiding my hair, so generously offering her time and talent, while engaging me in questions about my life and heart. The little girls, Gisma and Cecilia, were timid at first, and by the evening, we were all singing and playing together. My friend, Victoria, now seems somehow more like a sister to me. I was expecting to have a nice afternoon, what wasn’t expecting was the genuine warmth and care of a family.
I really felt loved.
Just when I think my heart has reached its capacity from the love I am able to give and receive in this place, Jesus expands it a little bit more, in the exact way I am most in need.