(Written May, 2007)
“Mama Deborah, how many children you have?” “I never had any children.” “Oh! Sorry!”
That conversation took place time and time again in Lui. People were always curious about my life in America but I suspect questioning how many children I had revealed more about the Sudanese people than my answers did about me. They didn’t understand how my husband would permit me to travel so far away from him. That he was home and looking out for his father was beyond their comprehension especially since there were no daughters at home to help him out. Admittedly, Ron took on a great many more responsibilities while I was gone but I never doubted he would manage nor did he.
The people working at the compound were laughing one morning about a visiting Egyptian-American couple who had come to the hospital for a month. The man was a physician but his wife had no medical training. Still she came to the hospital with him. They occasionally walked to work and were seen holding hands. It was scandalous! No Sudanese woman would be seen walking with her husband let alone holding hands with him. Only rarely did I know which woman was married to which man. I finally decided they must be married to the one they were never seen with! I never saw anyone kiss anyone else—not even a mother kissing her child. It just didn’t happen, at least not in public.
In recent memory, marriages were arranged between families but now people are at least able to choose the ones they will marry. The elders of the families must approve the marriage and the leaders of the community decide if it will take place. They must assure that they are not related to each other. There is a dowry that must be paid (in cash, cattle, tools or arrows) to compensate the families for the loss of their labors. Then the bride must live and work in the husband’s family compound for four days without eating! She had to do this to prove that she was strong enough to manage through the hard times to come. When I tried to explain what weddings were like in America, I might have been speaking Greek. Our cultures are very different. Our world views are very different, too. Imagine marrying someone for romantic reasons! Ridiculous! A honeymoon spent laboring for your mother-in-law without eating? Absurd!
I was asked about a woman who was unmarried that came from America. Where is her husband? She never married, I replied. Oh. There was a woman surgeon from America who had been asked many times where her husband was. She said during a sermon at chapel one morning that she asked God that very question all the time, “God, where is my husband?” The Sudanese giggled at her question but they would have another solution to the problem. If no marriage could be arranged for her, she could be a co-wife or she would live in another family member’s compound. She certainly wouldn’t be working as a surgeon and living independently.
The doctor with whom I worked was the resident expert with ultrasounds so I found myself helping him after pediatric rounds. We saw many women who were having abdominal pain. Their husbands would bring them to the doctor for a “scan” regularly but we rarely found anything wrong with them. I came to understand that these women were having fertility problems and were desperate for any hope they would become pregnant. One was a member of the family of a nurse with whom I worked and he begged me to counsel her. He was concerned for her mental status but she never returned to meet with me. Folk remedies would be tried, too. Some families took in children when they were orphaned but there weren’t formal adoptions nor were there orphanages. The children were accepted into families because families needed children.
Children (especially girl children) worked from the time they understood directions. They carried loads of sticks on their heads, pounded bricks into powder to make red paint for houses, worked in gardens, carried water when they could lift the cans onto their heads, carried their little brothers on their hips until they could walk and any other task they could manage. Mothers needed these helpers in order to manage the compounds. The young people also helped to care for the elders in the community. It was not an option to choose not to have children! When you consider that half the children die before the age of five and many more die from war and famine, one might have eight children but only see two grow into adulthood and have their own children.
We in the Episcopal Church USA are facing conflict from within our own communion and from the Anglican Communion at large. Nigerian Archbishop Akinola has recently named an American bishop for breakaway congregations here in the US. The Nigerian Archbishop can point to laws of Moses and writings of Paul that say that homosexual behavior is against God’s will. We on the other side can point to all the things that Jesus said about homosexuality (nothing at all) and say how right we are about God’s law. Gay people here have asked me about their brothers and sisters in Sudan and, I can honestly say, that while I believe that (like here) some 10% of the population was gay, I never saw any I could identify. It just wasn’t an option. Gay unions, they believe, would not produce children. It was, if you will forgive the pun, inconceivable in the Sudanese world view and probably in the world view of most of Africa.
I have strongly supported the Oasis community here and I believe that unions between two men or two women can reveal God’s love to our community just as that between a man and a woman but that is my world view and not the world view of Akinola or some others. They believe I am wrong and I am certain they are! But that doesn’t get us anywhere. We must listen to each other and we must not say that we have no need for each other. We have to remember our own histories and witness to others about our experiences. It will take time and courage on both sides of the conversation.