My Mother’s Wisdom

A Letter from Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan

May 2019

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“Will you come and see it?” asked a young man I met three years prior at a peacebuilding training.

Pochalla’s first-ever FM radio station opened a week or two before I arrived. So, I followed him down the dirt paths, weaving around homes with grass thatched roofs.

To get to Pochalla, I flew for an hour and a half over a vast, uninhabited land, spotted only by trees. I have visited just a few other communities in South Sudan that are as isolated. In such locations, I talk to God more than I do in towns or cities, in part because the picturesque landscape combined with the warm hospitality of residents renders a spirit of thankfulness. In part because I am afraid of wounding people with my words, so I pray for wisdom for the many times I will be asked to speak.

“It is nice,” I affirmed, my gaze journeying from the mud-walled building with solar panels up the tall, thin pole reaching into the sky.

“Will you please talk on the radio and greet Pochalla?” inquired another young man standing in the door of the station. In this context, “greeting” often carries an expectation of more than a brief sentence or two.

Immediately, my internal conversation began, “Oh Lord, what will I say in this impromptu radio message? Let me say something to encourage the people; please keep me from offending.”

In part, the pressure to choose wisely comes from knowing that people value my opinion as an “outsider.” Without earning any deserved respect, my words carry weight in this community, a location that receives limited visitors. Another reason I think hard before opening my mouth in a place like Pochalla is that many of my personal experiences differ drastically from the experiences of people I meet. How can I relate? What can I say that will translate well in this context?

There is always the possibility the message I hope to share will travel through the tunnel of cultural difference and come out on the other side with a completely different meaning. For example, when I first moved to South Sudan in 2010, I spent eight months in a community similar to Pochalla. One Sunday, I was asked to preach.

“This is the most beautiful place I have lived,” I shared with the congregation, something I reflected on each night as I sat on the side of a mountain, watching the sunset over the scattered glowing dots of evening fires heating dinner. After the church service, a colleague cautioned me, “They may think you are mocking them. People here think that big cities with tall buildings are beautiful, not rural places.” My heart sank.

So, my general rule of thumb is to listen more than speak. People everywhere feel valued when someone takes time to hear their thoughts. Yet, the time always comes when I am requested to speak.

Sitting next to the pastor at church in Pochalla, I knew I would be asked to greet the congregation. My words would have influence — I hoped for good. After explaining the partnership between the Presbyterian Church in the United States PC(USA) and in South Sudan (PCOSS) and our collaborative efforts for peacebuilding and education development, I shared from my mother’s wisdom.

“When I was young,” I said, holding my hand out to show my height as a child, “my mother worked hard to make sure I had a good education.” I paused, waiting for the pastor to interpret my words into Anyuak. “My mother wanted me to have a good education, because she knew no one could take my education away from me.”

Some of the people listening to my voice fled Pochalla due to conflict and recently returned home from refugee camps. They might know the experience of losing their earthly possessions. “People can take away your things, your bicycle, your home, but they cannot take away your education,” I continued, using my hands to point figuratively to knowledge inside my head.

The Presbyterian Church in Pochalla opened an elementary school in 2016 and hopes to start a high school this year, so I added, “I just visited a school in Pochalla, and I was encouraged to see many students in attendance. You are doing a great job here, helping your children learn…” When I left the service, I had no idea how my comments were received.

The next day, it surprised me to hear my name squished in the middle of an Anyuak sentence at a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meeting. The head teacher leaned over to me with a smile and translated “Okon said, ‘What Nancy said in church is paining my heart so much…’” The head teacher and I understood that this parent referred to a type of pain that is helpful, like when something strikes a deep chord. “…We need to inform our leaders about the importance of education,” Okon concluded with a serious and pensive look on his face.

The PTA meeting brought together parents from four schools in Pochalla. They gathered together to discuss the large number of children who are not in school. First, they shared the reasons for lack of attendance:

“The reason children are not coming to school,” one mother shared, “is due to a lack of notebooks (paper) in schools, and because they are going hunting.” In my short time in Pochalla, I bumped into several young boys on the road who proudly carried antelope meat on their shoulders.

One father added, “When I find children around, I ask them, ‘why did you not go to school?’ And they respond, ‘there are no teachers in school,’” lifting up a common complaint about government schools. He then explained that the government is not paying the teachers enough for them to work regularly.

After the reasons for lack of attendance came suggestions for “joining hands together” and getting children in school.

“We will keep making awareness,” one parent committed. Then the group agreed that in areas with high numbers of children out of school, they would call parents together for tea, and then talk about the benefits of education.

When asked to speak at the end of the PTA meeting, I shared some more of my mother’s wisdom: “My mother was a teacher,” I started, “and towards the end of her career, she taught in one school with low performance in test scores and then in another school with high performance. From her experience, she said that the schools which perform well are the schools in which the parents are involved. I am happy to see so many parents at this meeting. As parents you have the power to bring about the changes you want to see…”

After the meeting, one father, Okon, accompanied me the half mile back to my accommodation. “I will not forget your family’s message,” he said, referring to my mother’s messages. I thanked him for the good work he is doing with the PTA, and we parted ways.

Before leaving Pochalla, I prayed that any of my words or actions that caused offense would be forgotten, and that an attempt to share in God’s love and service together would remain. The geographic distance between our lives would limit our future encounters, and the distance in our life stories limits our points of connection, yet some of our experiences are shared: worshipping on Sundays, attending PTA meetings, wanting the best for our kids. With a full heart, I stepped into the helicopter to depart a beautiful place that reminded me of my mother’s wisdom, of parents’ common goal of raising their children well, and of God’s grace in giving me opportunities to listen and to speak.

May God give each of us the wisdom to find what is shared and the courage to love one another, even when we are sure that at times we will fail.

Thank you for your support of our family that gives us the privilege of serving alongside our sisters and brothers in South Sudan and Uganda.

Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather

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