Saturday, March 23, 2013


The more time that goes by, the more I miss my family.  I’ve been itching for a hug from mom, a good laugh with dad, and some hangout time with my sisters and brother.   I’m often reminded of them in day-to-day life, as I interact with the community here in Maridi.  God graced my heart with a marvelous consolation in my homesickness this past week- the gift of a family here in Africa.

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.

A few impressions remained with me at the day’s end: the good, the sad, and the beautiful.

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.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lenten Sacrifices

This has been by far the most interesting Lent up to date.  I began the season with the typical penances; I’d given up bread and all beverages apart from water, and I’d promised God I’d be more faithful to personal daily prayer.  What I’ve discovered is this: Mission is in itself is a penance.  Paralleling the satisfaction and joy of daily life is the daily commitment to sacrifice.  This joy masked the small struggles of daily life for many months; and without coincidence, the Lord chose this holy season to open my eyes to this daily sacrifice, offering me the opportunity for growth and a greater dependence upon His grace.  It’s truly a gift, but it hasn’t been easy! 

As well as continuing in my daily nursing responsibilities at the Health Center, my heart fell right back into its home among the students of Don Bosco Primary as we begun the new 2013 school year in late January.  One my missionary highlights, and probably one of the most uplifting moments of my entire life, took place amidst my first lesson in my Religion class with Grade 7.  After I had strategically mapped out how the class schedule would unfold, what the course outline would look like and had all my notes ready to go, I woke up the morning of that first lesson and said to myself, “I have to teach them about LOVE!”  How could I start my Religion class any other way?!  Love, the aim of our Christian life, the greatest of the virtues and commandments, my personal mantra.  So I quickly scrapped my plans and during slow moments at the hospital was looking up Bible verses and putting together the key points.  It was during that particular class, as I was proclaiming how loved we are by Jesus with all the passion and fire in my being, that I suddenly felt the weight of what I was doing.  I was taken aback by the silent movement of the Holy Spirit in my heart:  “This is why you have come, to love them and to teach them how to love.”

I adore the many fascinating personalities and discussions that fill up my class periods every day after lunch, and I keep myself quite busy in the mornings working at our Hospital.  We’ve been open to the public for one and a half months now, and it seems we are developing a nice rhythm and routine in our facility, despite the unpredictability of each day.  A few favorite moments stand out in my memory.  The first was an adorable, spunky little boy from our Class 1, who came for a dressing.  Despite his endearing presence in our clinic, that particular day I was in a less than pleasant mood, feeling overwhelmed and thereby rushing to get the work done.  Though this small boy doesn’t speak much English yet, as I sat there like a stress-ball trying to accomplish the task at hand, he suddenly began to sing a popular church hymn under his breath, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me…”    How quickly my attitude then changed.  A similar experience occurred this week as I was again dressing wounds for another one of our school children.   While I knelt on the ground, pouring water and wiping clean this boy’s dust-covered, little brown feet in preparation to then cleanse his wounds, I was suddenly jolted by the realization: I am washing the feet of Jesus.   I am so unworthy to serve Jesus in these beautiful people, and I so often forget the gift that sits right before me.  I love being able to love them!

A special gift in the past few weeks also included the widening of our Salesian Lay Missionary family here in Maridi.  Two of my brother SLMs came to join in our community, Tom for two weeks and Dan has come permanently!  It's been a gift to enjoy friends- I love my Sister Cait, but a fresh English-fluent, young American face in the mix has been so much fun for all of us!  We miss Tom now that he's gone back to Juba, and we are loving the addition of Dan to our family!  He already fits in perfectly.

There are certainly many unanticipated challenges within this Lenten season, opportunities to recommit to my call here in South Sudan, through both the good and the... less good.  The intricacies of different relationships within the community are certainly stressful at times for all involved, and learning to live as a unified whole in our work and in our recreation isn’t always easy.  I’m also suddenly more and more aware of the rice and beans we eat for 95% of our lunch and dinner meals, and I find it hilarious how my subconscious mind has been recalling food like memories lately.  I’ll be walking down the path to my house and suddenly envision the Seafood Alfredo dish from the Olive Garden, or a Chicken Bites Wrap from the Pub at Franciscan University, or a Cheese steak from the Perk.  Working so much and hardly having any down time is certainly taxing over a period of so many months.  My computer broke and is being sent to America for repair, so in the meantime I have to borrow from my site partners or deal without one.  I’m running out of topics to give talks on after evening oratory.  Sometimes I just want to be in charge of my own schedule.  I’m still like an infant trying to speak Zande language.  How do I respond to a love letter from my student!?!  So many little struggles, small Lenten penances, that are hardly but a bother in the big picture of my incredible life in South Sudan.  I thank Jesus for giving me these tiny opportunities to unite myself to His Passion and Death, so that come Easter Sunday, I will not just have been missing mango juice for forty days, but hopefully I’ll find myself renewed and invigorated amidst His glorious Resurrection. 

"The world offers you comfort, 
but you were not made for comfort; 
you were made for greatness."   
-Benedict XVI