Harsh Light, Blue Shadows

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I’m pretty adaptable, but heat fatigue and hunger take a toll. I use “hunger” loosely—though I might yearn for a meal here, I have no idea what it would be like to suffer hunger. In this village, I’m surrounded by people who have an intimate relationship with the pain and anguish of malnourishment, the experience of starving, and of watching people they love die for lack of food.

Moses and Daniel and I traveled to the site for a meeting with the guardians and the girls, arranged by Dau and Manyok. The meeting was at nine, so naturally the guardians came at 10:30. Before they arrived, we heard the plane overhead, which caused Dau to head toward the airstrip to organize carriers for our materials, leaving the girls, Manyok, Rhoda, Moses, Daniel and me to set out chairs and greet the guardians.

Materials began to trickle in, but I felt bad about the guardians with nothing to do, though they were less concerned. My Western desire for punctuality and my own personal difficulty of sitting quietly without always having to “do” is continually challenged here. Manyok didn’t want to start the program without Dau who had been the one to meet with the guardians when the girls were first chosen before Manyok was hired, but we had planned to serve tea and fruit, so we began preparing that.

Rhoda and Tabitha (pronounced Tabeesa) brought trays with cups of tea while Achol, one of our ASAH girls, worked at slicing two fresh pineapples and apples. Milk tea is a special treat. Though common in Africa, nothing is common in South Sudan for people who have no food, no money, and no place to buy food even if they had money. Their faces lit up, and there was much chatter as they consumed the dripping pineapple, a food they had never tasted before.

I’m frustrated taking photos. The sun is bright and harsh, the shadows deep and blue. To shoot the very dark faces of Sudanese, the darkest of Africans, light is essential. But this light is not flattering, it’s hot—both in temperature and appearance—and the shadows are deep and dappled as they filter through the trees. Group shots often result in faces that are almost silhouettes.

Dau arrived and the program began. The guardians were introduced. Manyok translated for me as Dau spoke to them in Dinka about our opening date—January 15, and our expectations for the girls—that they be released to our care and allowed to remain until their education is complete, which today means primary school, but we hope to get many of them through secondary school and beyond if funds allow. We will encourage visiting and interaction of the girls with their families and the local community. They will attend the local school during the mornings and church on Sundays, and we will enlist teachers, villagers with talents and skills, and even clinic staff and visitors to share their knowledge with our girls.

After I thanked them for allowing their girls to join us and talked of our desire that they stay in the program and not be forced to marry at puberty, several guardians rose to comment. Each of them reinforced their happiness that the girls would be under our care. They told me they are unable to protect the girls from forced marriage in their households. If a potential groom—even a 50 or 70-year-old man—presents cattle dowry—the girls would be given. With us, they will be safe.

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