This is my fourth time to South Sudan within the last year. I’ve traveled to four of the ten states over a span of two and half months. Somehow it feels like home, in the way that any place could ever feel like home. The smell of fresh bread and blistering heat.
This project has been different than any other I’ve worked on. We’ve spent almost two weeks training 40 children on how to videotape and act in their own dramas. All day. Every day. 40 children that I can’t communicate with directly. And yet love abounds.
The first day, with cocked heads, they observed my patterns. Pointed at my lip rings. But only from afar. They said my name with hesitancy. Whispers surrounded me.
Each day they inched closer.
Now they scream my name, a glorious chorus in the mornings when I greet them. They have pulled at my arm hair. Asked me to remove my lip rings. I’ve given them secret glances at my shoulder tattoos. They’ve held my hand. Let me hold them. Taught me small doses of Arabic.
Now instead of “Kawaja!” they yell, “Christena!”
It’s nice to be known. To be comfortable. Nice to have someone saying my name instead of my skin color.
Asben David is the only one that can speak any English on a communicable level. The rest dabble with their words. David, 14, rests his head on my shoulder during shootings. He hates it when I rub his head but desperately loves any other affection. He’s always hungry.
The one I have named Small Baby, I still can’t pronounce her name. Her nickname has caught on with delight among the other children. She has a horrible consistent cough that runs in the background of our recordings. We told her. Now she walks very far away to cough and then silently comes back. I adore her.
Insaf. She’s the popular girl. Everyone wants her attention and she’s the best actor we have. Sometimes she cops an attitude and though I have no idea what she’s saying, I make a goofy face at her or pinch her arm and she laughs. I hope she grows up to be someone amazing.
Mandela, who knows he’s the famous one, traded me his blue and white beaded bracelet for the 9/11 Memorial rubber wristband I got in New York during my recent trip there. I tried explaining what it meant and where it came from, but it was an impossible undertaking. I tried to tell him that my country was attacked, just like his. That even in America we have problems. He just smiled. I haven’t taken his bracelet off since.
This is the second year I’ve spent thanksgiving in South Sudan. Both times I’ve been lucky enough to have chicken for dinner, though it’s hardly a replacement for the comforts of family.
I miss my family. Always.
But I’m thankful to be here. Thankful to have work. Thankful to be doing something that even on my bad days I still love and believe in.
Recently I prayed for joy. A deep-seated joy that bubbles over into other peoples auras. Something that has been amiss for a while.
I can’t say these children are the source of joy, but they have sparked something in me that needed to be lit. It’s hard to think I’ll probably never see them again. But I have resolved myself to being a transient and this is one price that must be paid for such a life. The goings and comings never get easier, but maybe the joy in between can grow.
Maybe they will believe in themselves a little more. Maybe they won’t be afraid of the future. Maybe they will follow their dreams. I hope they turn out to be people who chose education over alcohol. Ones who become leaders when they return home to Sudan.
So back to Nairobi I go, taking with me one bracelet, many photographs, and the hope of a fuller life with more joy.
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name” -Jeremiah 15:16