A letter from Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather serving in South Sudan
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I was cooking a pot of cabbage in my small kitchen when I heard a voice calling to me through the window. “Madame, ana deru akil,” the boy said, placing his fingers to his mouth, in case I did not understand his Juba Arabic statement, “Madame, I want food.”
I felt very uncomfortable. I thought my kitchen was my own personal space. When I step out of my front door, there is always the possibility that young children will shout something at me … or when I walk down the road … shop in the market … attend church … pretty much anywhere in public. Some children just shout “Khawajah, Khawajah!!!” with great excitement. Khawajah means “foreigner,” or some say it means “white person.” These children are generally happy with a wave that acknowledges their presence. Other children, in contrast, may ask for a ball, sometimes a mango, sometimes money. Never before, however, had anyone called through my window.
After the feeling of my personal space being invaded, then came a feeling of being angry and frustrated. During the past three or four days, these three boys seemed to find Shelvis and me as soon as we stepped out of the house and ask us for something. They looked about 10 years old, and they were bold and demanding. I felt sure their parents would be embarrassed by their actions, or mostly sure.
The next emotion I felt was compassion. What if they really are hungry, not just trying to see what they can get from this “foreigner”? I generally assume that the children living in the homes neighboring the RECONCILE campus have something to eat. But the economic times have really shifted over the past few months, prices for food in the market are high, and perhaps their families cannot make ends meet.
Honestly, I am really not sure if these boys are actually hungry. Children often ask for fruit from the trees at the training center, but that does not necessarily mean they are without food. Children can see me walk past and ask me for a ball even when they are chasing a ball as they ask. The culture of foreigners giving and local children receiving is deeply embedded here, so asking a foreigner for something can sometimes just be a knee-jerk, hopeful reaction. But there is one request these boys made that I did not stop to question.
Shelvis came into the house one day and said, “The boys asked me to help them learn to read.”
Only the week before a South Sudanese friend mentioned to me that her daughter, who has trouble hearing, would often come home from school crying, “Mama, I want to read, but I cannot hear the teacher … but I want to read!”
The ability to read is rare in South Sudan. The adult literacy rate is 27 percent. While I cannot imagine my life without the ability to read, I remember I did not like to read when I was young. I was a slow reader and embarrassed to read aloud in class. As a child I did not understand the importance of reading. In South Sudan I am struck by the thirst many children have for school, for learning, for reading. By recognizing the doors reading will open for them, their families, and their country, these children are wise beyond their years.
I do not know the best way to respond to the many children who ask me for things as I live in South Sudan. I really need to pray more about this and continue to seek the counsel of others. I do know that I am in a place with great needs and great possibilities. I trust God is at work in many ways in South Sudan, and I realize that I am only a part of a larger body of Christ at work in this place. I have a function, yet there are many roles that are not mine. Give me wisdom, Holy Spirit, that I may follow Your leading in each situation. I know that I cannot do it all.
While I continue struggling to discern the best ways to join in my local community in South Sudan, I am deeply thankful that through the support of churches and individuals in the U.S., and through the ministries of South Sudanese congregations, I actually get to be a part of helping children learn to read. Wow. Thank you, Lord.
Thank you for your support, which allows our family to live and serve in the place we feel Christ calling us. We are so grateful to be a part of God’s work of peacebuilding and education in South Sudan. Please prayerfully consider continuing to support this ministry.
Nancy and Shelvis
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 139
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