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Words tell of hope in South Sudan — and beyond

By Nancy Smith-Mather | Presbyterians Today

Rachel Obal’s education helped her and her sisters achieve a better life. Obal now works to make sure young girls in South Sudan have an opportunity to attend school. Courtesy of Nancy Smith-Mather

I sat next to Rachel Obal outside of her home in rural South Sudan, listening to the story of her uncle who, as a boy, was taken from his home by Arabs to be sold as a slave near Khartoum, Sudan. Obal’s words painted a vivid picture as she spoke of how her father followed his brother to rescue him and had to witness the small boy, with hands tied behind his back, paraded in front of crowds to be sold. I could see the boy with his hands tied, his knees pressed into the dusty market ground. I could even picture his thin, brown body, still bound at the wrists, placed on a boat. In my mind’s vision, no one else was on the boat; he was a child all alone, floating toward slavery. My heart ached as I listened.

No one, though, would buy the boy, as he was too young, Obal continued to say. And so Obal’s father tried to negotiate for his release. That didn’t work out well. The men who took his brother would allow the young boy to go free only after Obal’s father worked for them for five years.

“So my father worked for them, and during that time he learned Arabic. After five years, he returned to Akobo, his home in southern Sudan, with his brother by his side,” Obal said.

With God all things are redemptive and, as it turns out, American Presbyterian missionaries came to Akobo. Many of them, Obal said, had learned Arabic while in Khartoum. Obal’s father soon became the village’s translator, translating the Arabic the missionaries were able to speak into the Anyuak language of those in Akobo.

Nancy Smith-Mather, left, and Rachel Obal bond at Obal’s South Sudan home as they share stories and discover the amazing ways God works through them. Courtesy of Nancy Smith-Mather

The missionaries, Obal said, would preach in the villages. Then they built a church, a clinic and a school. They would preach in the school, the clinic and the church about God’s love and salvation.

“Every morning, before opening the clinic, there was prayer. People heard about spiritual and physical healing,” she said.

When she was a child, her father made the radical decision to put Obal and her sisters in school.

“Back then, only boys went to school. People thought it was bad for us to be around the boys like that, but my father did not care. He wanted us to get an education,” Obal said.

Obal finished her elementary schooling in Akobo, then went to an intermediate school in Yei. It was like “heaven on earth,” she recalled, as she was able to commit to full-time studies.

“In our culture here in South Sudan, the housework is put on the girls. They get up early, clean the compound, wash the dishes, make tea, then go to school. When classes are finished, they wash the dishes, bathe the children — there is no time for homework,” Obal said. “So they get poor marks, they become discouraged, they drop out.”

Obal, though, stayed in dormitories at the boarding school in Yei, where she not only studied hard, she played basketball and volleyball too.

“We had time for studying and recreation. We made friends,” Obal said.

As I pictured young South Sudanese girls laughing, throwing a basketball, completing their homework, the similarities to my own high school experience surfaced. My best friends from high school are still my friends, and we too loved playing sports together.

When Obal’s father died while she was still young, the family was adopted by the church in Akobo, and Obal and her sisters were able to continue their education.

“When we had our three-month holiday from school, my sisters and I would come back to Akobo and work for the missionaries of the church who adopted us. They hired us because we were educated, and they paid us a dollar a day. At that time, that was a lot of money, and we thought we were rich,” Obal said.

People in the community saw that the education of the Obal girls brought them money, and because of that parents started putting their girls in school.

“We were the role models of education,” Obal said.

Peaceful times, though, were about to come to an end. In 1965, war broke out. The Arabs said the missionaries were helping the South Sudanese and so they were expelled, Obal said.

Rachel Obal recalled her time as a young girl playing ball in the schoolyard — an opportunity many girls didn’t have. Today, through her work and the work of mission co-workers like Nancy Smith-Mather, hope in a brighter future exists for girls in South Sudan. Courtesy of Nancy Smith-Mather

Obal’s sister joined the liberation movement. She remained in Akobo with their mother and raised money for the liberation army. Obal was arrested and jailed for her support of the liberation army.

“They told me if I continued to support the rebels, they would kill me too,” she remembered.

Obal, however, didn’t back down and told them, “If you kill me, it is my day to die.” She was eventually released.

Life remained hard for the Obal family for the next two decades, when finally, in the early 1980s, Obal’s family applied for resettlement in the United States. Home would now be Jacksonville, Florida.

In Florida, Obal took a cue from her father and began volunteering as a translator at a refugee resettlement agency. She also put her own experiences to work, becoming a case manager helping to resettle refugees from around the world. Obal worked tirelessly, seeing the needs, and when she needed more help, she would seek out more volunteers at area churches.

“I got so many volunteers involved, that I got an award from the White House, signed by President Obama,” Obal said. “People thought, ‘Who is this lady; who is doing all these things?’ But it was by the grace of God.”

Standing up from her plastic chair, she went inside a house here in South Sudan whose walls bore numerous bullet holes. She then came out with the award and handed it to me. Pride welled up inside me. I felt grateful that she received such a distinction, as a woman and as a refugee who became a dual U.S. and South Sudanese citizen.

We sipped sweet, hot tea as Obal continued her story of God’s grace and guidance. She flipped through digital photos of a trip she took in her role for the government of South Sudan as a peace and reconciliation adviser. In a neighboring town, a conflict had developed between two ethnic groups, the Murle and the Jie. The conflict resulted in people and cows being killed and children on both sides being abducted. Obal wanted to make peace.

“I sent a message to the Jie, asking them to come for a reconciliation meeting. At first, they refused to come. So I went to them. We sat together and discussed the situation. They decided the lost cows and people who were killed are gone; the only thing they wanted were their abducted children. They decided to forgive. The Murle and Jie gave back each other’s children and reconciled,” Obal said.

As I looked through her pictures, I came across a picture of a place I recognized. I lived there for eight months in 2010, with the Murle people. The connection moved my soul, prompting me to share some of my story with Obal.

“My husband’s great-great-grandmother was a slave in the U.S. His grandmother was a sharecropper. His mother, Shirley Smith, was one of 10 children, the youngest and the first to go to college. She finished her master’s degree and then began to work on her Ph.D.,” I said.

I then pointed to Obal’s picture.

“In the same open-air market in your photo, in 2010, the Murle and Jie girls came together, begging their parents to let them go to school. I told my mother-in-law about those girls. I told her about schools meeting under trees,” I said. “My mother-in-law was surprised. As we sat in chairs, waiting for her chemotherapy appointment, she said, ‘If they are learning under trees, then I can work hard to finish my studies.’ ”

Shirley Smith died the day after South Sudan gained independence in 2011. I remember watching the jubilant South Sudanese citizens dancing on the TV screen in the hospital hallway. At the time of her death, she had finished all her coursework for her Ph.D., but not her dissertation. Yet she gained inspiration from South Sudanese girls who, even if under a tree, were determined to get an education.

We finished our tea. Obal’s stories were still vivid in my mind as I found myself wishing that my mother-in-law, Shirley Smith, could have met her. I found myself marveling at how small the world really is and how important it is to share our stories with one another. To let each other’s stories break our hearts, quiet our spirits, cause contagious laughter, feel our connectedness and our distance, and make us care about each other’s struggles and aspirations.

Nancy Smith-Mather, along with her husband, Shelvis, is a mission co-worker in South Sudan. Smith-Mather works with RECONCILE International, a Christian organization that seeks to bring peace and healing to war-torn communities.

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