Trees that Transform

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

October 2018

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No one told me it would be a helicopter. The small bus from the terminal took us down the tarmac to an airplane parking lot and dropped us off at a large WFP chopper. I immediately wanted to take a photo to show my kids, but the warning on the back of my ticket stated clearly: “No photos at the airport.” So, I just got in the line with some boys who were maybe ages 12-16.

“Did you come as a group?” I asked one boy, intrigued that so many children would be riding this helicopter with me.

“I don’t speak English,” he responded and pointed to a taller friend he knew could answer.

“We came for training,” the friend explained.

“What type of training?” I asked, curious about what these children from rural Pibor were learning in the capital city of Juba.

“It was good,” he responded.

“What was? The training?” I tried again.

“It was for driving, electrician, tailoring, mechanics,” he shared.

Ita swag? (you’re a driver?)” I asked. Based on his age, I figured it must have been a basic course like driver’s ed.

Ana swag (I’m a driver),” he replied with a proud smile.

When I entered the helicopter, the pilot pointed to the end of the bench. I took a pair of headphones to protect my ears and squeezed past knees towards the back. One of the youngest boys sat next to me on the very last seat. He forgot headphones, so I motioned to the pilot standing in front of the cockpit, who then passed one set our way and said to the boy, “don’t put your feet on the ground there, it is a door.”

I translated, “De bab, it bi waga (It is a door, you will fall),” and the boy quickly shifted his feet closer to mine on the main floor of the helicopter. My maternal instinct kicking in, I tightened the loose belt around the thin boy’s waist. I didn’t want him to bump out of his seat.

Training primary school teachers in South Sudan.

Image 1 of 3

After an hour in the air, we descended on Pibor town, blowing the tall grass below us. I expected the green fields, the women in long dresses, cows with big horns in the mud streets, the children running towards the aircraft as it landed. I did not expect the UN Peacekeepers, blue helmets, guns in hand, lining the dirt airstrip.

A vehicle drove me to the guarded gate of a compound walled with bunkers, barbed-wire spirals adorning the rim.

“You will sleep like a baby here,” the driver chuckled.

A blue UNICEF flag waved at us as we entered the office.

“What programs do you run here?” I asked the only man at the row of desks.

“I do child protection,” he responded, “and my colleague who sits there,” pointing to an empty desk, “does demobilization, the release of child soldiers.”

“How does he do that?” I wondered aloud.

“It takes some convincing of the commanders,” he explained. “We try to tell them about the rights of children.”

“What happens when they are released?” my questions continued.

“Sometimes, we take them to Juba. We send them to do some skills trainings, driving, mechanics, tailoring. We send them to school and engage them with sports. It helps keep them from going back to the bush. Weren’t there some boys on your helicopter?”

“Yes,” I respond, making the connection in my mind. “They seemed young.”

“They are all under 18.”

The walls of my room looked like the containers on the back of large trucks or trains. I left my bag and returned to the car. The sun-scorched, cracked dirt road led to the teacher training I came to Pibor to observe.

We found the primary school teachers gathered in the shade of a huge tree that had been transformed into a classroom. String stretched from one branch to another, creating a large rectangular “room.” Signs suspended under the leaves marked stations — Science Corner, Math Corner, English …. Learning materials like light bulbs, one whole and one broken to reveal its internal workings, and a live cricket in an empty water bottle dangled from limbs. It was a tree of knowledge, whose tools swayed like wind chimes in the breeze.

“Even if we teach children under the tree, with the best teachers, they can get good knowledge,” the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan told me the day before in Juba.

These teachers were all young men, probably in their late teens or early twenties. Some teach primary school in the morning, then attend secondary in the afternoon, hoping to finish their own high-school-level education while bringing up the younger children.

I sat in the back, listening to the facilitator review concepts like participatory learning, continuous assessment of students, methods for engaging learners with different ability levels, the use of visual aids, strategies for maintaining control of the class….

They sang songs together, laughed, and took to heart their responsibility to be role models. “If you produce good citizens, it is you the teachers. If you produce bad citizens, it is you the teachers. Which means, the entire nation holistically depends on the hands of the teachers. Is that true or not true?” the facilitator asked.

“It is true,” the young men respond.

“My work (as a teacher) is to transform the society … to be a peaceful society, well-off, educated human beings, who can analyze, who can develop, who don’t take people’s lives unnecessarily, who don’t steal. People who are productive. If that … is not there, then it is me the teacher who is wrong,” the trainer stated.

I thought about the young teenage boys on the helicopter. Some of these men sitting in front of me might be their teachers. A sense of comfort came over me, knowing those boys might be part of the flock transformed, cared for by a trained teacher, not allowed to fall through the cracks. Under the ceiling of the strongly rooted classroom, I marveled at the fact that other mothers, fathers, and church members in the US played a small part in this distant scene, supporting the training with prayers and contributions to the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding project. Thank you.

Thank you for your support of our family, which allows us to participate in the ministries of peacebuilding and education with our South Sudanese sisters and brothers.

Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather

Please read this important message from José Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission

Dear partners in God’s mission,

We near the close of 2018 inspired by the hope of Christ. God is transforming the world, and you are helping to make it happen.

Thank you very much for your support of our mission co-workers. The prayers and financial gifts of people like you enable them to work alongside global partners to address poverty, hopelessness, violence and other pressing problems in the name of Jesus Christ.

Every day, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers are blessed to be able to walk alongside their brothers and sisters across the globe. Listening to each other in faith and in friendship, they learn from each other how to work towards a world in which everyone flourishes. Acting upon what they discover together, PC(USA) mission co-workers and our global partners strengthen the body of Christ.

Because you are an integral part of God’s mission, I invite you to become more deeply committed to Presbyterian World Mission. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer God’s call to serve others.

I also invite you to ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s prayer list and mission budget for 2019 and beyond. Your multi-year commitment will make a great difference in our involvement with our partners. The majority of our mission co-workers’ funding comes from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours, for God’s mission is a responsibility of the whole church, not a particular area of the church. Now more than ever, we need your financial support!

In faith, our mission co-workers accept a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission, representing the whole church and you, sends them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts? With hope and faith, I await your positive response!

At God’s service and at your service!

José Luis Casal

P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!

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