Under the Big Tree

A letter from Leisa Wagstaff, serving in South Sudan

February 2018

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Dear Partners in Mission,

We arrived at The Big Tree, our meeting place for the leadership training of 50 lay women. The Big Tree is an important place situated at a major juncture where small dirt paths meet: one going to a tributary of the Nile River; one to a bordering village; another towards the major road leading to South Sudan’s capital; and a few others to homes pieced together with straw, mud, pieces of zinc or International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF plastic sheets, sometimes a combination of all four.

A few women were already gathered at the meeting place as we drove in, either sweeping the area or setting up a few crudely made and fragile-looking benches that the Christian community uses during worship. Community meetings are also held under The Big Tree: elders meet to decide issues affecting their people and to settle disputes; marriages are celebrated; babies are baptized; medical technicians occasionally tend to the sick; government officials pass along information; people hunker under its wide branches when caught in a rainstorm or to hide from the hot, hot sun; men gather to “chew the fat” after fishing; and women and youth rest after washing clothes or toting water from the riverbank. In times of war, The Big Tree has served as a command post or place to hide. Most important, it is where the people gather to worship and the children learn.

Seeing our vehicle pass, other women stopped the lifegiving work of planting their fields during this crucial time of the planning season, bending over open fires preparing simple meals, or carrying head bundles of firewood gathered from far-off places. They joined their sisters. It was a welcome opportunity for many to get a break from the mundane things in life. I was there because I had been invited by the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) Women’s Department to facilitate in the areas of empowerment and healthy living.

The benches filled quickly, but no one complained. Occupants just squeezed in tighter to make room for one more, and when it was impossible to do so, women began to sit on the ground. A few men joined the group as well, and all seemed enthused to hear the Word of God and receive training. The women multitasked: they studied, nursed their offspring who had accompanied them strapped on their backs in the traditional way of carrying infants, passed their babies from one willing hand to another to be loved and nurtured, and shifted benches and bodies as the sun found us and began to beat down upon us.

Young education activists.

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The day began with worship and introductions. I was presented in my capacity as an education facilitator for the Church. As time went on, many more people — men and women AND children — hovered around. The pastor, who is a member of the community, Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) presbytery general secretary and the meeting organizer, took time during a break to explain to me what was happening. Somehow the word spread quickly that an “education madam” was at “The Big Tree.” Perhaps it was spread by the people passing along the various paths on their way to and from the Nile River or sojourns in other places. Because someone connected to education was present and the community desired to better the lives of their children, they wanted to be a part of a discussion. I suggested that we schedule part of the next day to discuss their dream of education and the role they were willing to take to make this a reality.

The following day, the children came out in great numbers. All paths led to The Big Tree. As the children approached, most attired in their best with expectant and shiny faces, there was a hunger in their eyes for something better, just an opportunity to have a chance at something positive. These little precious ones, yea, activists, were making a stand. That stance is for quality schooling that can open the door to power, the power to choose for oneself, “self-actualization and self-determination, and an ability to speak for those who are citizens but without a voice.” When asked if they needed schooling, they answered simultaneously in the affirmative, their voices accentuated by clapping, stamping of feet and wide grins. They understand well that good schooling and a “good future” go hand in hand.

This community needs lots of input, but it is forging ahead, doing what is possible within its means and encouraging others to join in. Community members have recently built a one-room tukul, a straw-thatched building with mud walls that is usually round, where the community will be able to worship, learn and fellowship, even when the rains come.

This community that has been passed over in terms of development and caught up in the vicious cycle of the continuing war is not unique. There are too many others, and they are all striving to make something out of very little, even out of nothing. According to the UN, more than half of the country’s school-age children up to age 15 are not attending school.

Education in South Sudan is doing more than educating the mind. It is changing ideas, encouraging independent thinking, providing skills to cope with the shortcomings of life, and preparing people to deal with “after the war.” It is bringing people together, encouraging people “to remember to hope so as to instill hope in others.” Education is providing a sense of stability and safety in the lives of the young, in the mature ones wishing to learn and in their entire communities.

Several PC(USA) South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP)-supported schools are providing a point of common interest where there is no room for conflict. Groups that once fought and feared each other are now allowing their children to go to the same schools because these schools are the better ones. They now see one another as “neighbors who (will) stand for (them) when (they) are in trouble” and “(their) children as the South Sudanese’s future, as (their) future.”

Partners in Mission, you have journeyed with me as I have journeyed into communities under their “Big Tree” where hearts are crying, and you have committed yourself to helping to wipe away these tears. Let us continue to journey together with our children and communities here through prayer, advocacy and support. With a grateful and blessed heart, I thank you.

In Ministry Together,

Leisa TonieAnn Wagstaff

(More information on how you are impacting the PC(USA) SSEPP can be found in the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan/Sudan (PCOSS/S) Education Department News newsletters and SSEPP Quarterly Summary Reports found on my Mission Connections webpage.

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