Controlled Burn

Panties_Sorting (2 of 3)


ASAH Girls and our Matron sorting panties in our storage building.


I shouldn’t wear a watch here. We’re on African time. It’s no matter that I’ve been here eight times. No matter that I’m often five minutes late for appointments at home. No matter that my goals for the day exceed what is possible, whether I’m at home in the US or here at my home away from home at the ASAH School in South Sudan, I feel and hear that tight sound in my voice both when choking back and when expressing my disappointment. TIA – this is Africa, I remind myself. It’s rare that I blow my top. It’s more like a controlled burn.

Sorting and Distribution

I asked for 20 girls from the community. Twenty teenage girls to whom we could give underwear. We do it every time I come, and our students and staff continue even when I’m gone. When I’m here I want videos. I want photos. I want to show our generous supporters back home what we do with their donations of panties and washable sanitary pads.

My husband edits my video when I return, and he has expectations, too. For example, that we can actually SEE the girls and the underwear. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.

In 2010, I distributed underwear after church under a tree, the panties stacked on a tarp. Two JDF clinic midwives helped me. The organized part went well. School girls in uniform in a line. When they finished, we had women and younger children waiting, but they weren’t in line. They were a mass that moved toward us en masse. Finally, the midwives packed the underwear back in a bag and waited until everyone moved back. It’s like Black Friday here when we’re distributing panties.

Another year, inside the run-down school tukuls where the early primary school kids learn seated on the dirt floor, or barefoot, they sit their flip flops. Some crouch on large tin cans, perch on a tree-branch benches or stand in the back. I try to shoot photos in the dark, dark room as the male teachers pass handfuls of panties over the heads of students to the little girls.

In 2012, our older ASAH girls, our matron and I went to the school. I had hoped for help with the video, but our male staff deserted me because the girls squished together in the schoolroom were embarrassed to have male staff videotaping as they received their unmentionables.

After I left in July, our matron, our head teacher, and our four oldest girls walked through ankle-deep water 45 minutes each way to distribute underwear to girls at the local school in Patuenoi. A week later they walked to Poktop. Two hours each way on flooded paths, some more than knee deep.

This year, I planned for more control. On our site. On tables. With girls seated in chairs. Outside, where we had light. I thought 20 girls would be a nice, manageable number.

Some of the ASAH students, me, Jean Wood, and our matron, spent more than an hour sorting underwear by size. I sort them before I leave, but end up using panties in other bags as filler, and cushions, tucking them into every nook and cranny in my bags to maximize the usable space without going over the 50 Lb limit. I’m usually over. Some girls had been notified they should come at 2. Which means we didn’t start setting up until two, but the girls didn’t show up then, either. They began to gather between our gate and our inner fence as we organized our bounty on tables.

I didn’t count. There were 20 in chairs, but they kept coming, 30, 40, 50? 75? 100? And even with the organization and the plan, their dark faces under our enormous shade trees complicated the shooting, the sun at an unfavorable angle, bodies blocking my shots. And I left my video camera on a tripod, which I moved from time to time. Again, the male staff unwelcome.

If we let the girls select their own, we end up with a large pile of white undies that no one wants. If I lived in South Sudan and had to carry my water on my head a long distance to wash my clothes, and I didn’t have any soap, I wouldn’t want white undies either. As usual, we went through the small sizes quickly – sizes 4 through 10. The stacks of size 12 and size 14 shrunk only slightly These girls are thin as rails. Imagine the tallest thinnest teenage girl you’ve ever seen in America an subtract 10 pounds. And they like them tight.

If you’re coming to our “Get Your Panties in a Bunch” lunch in February and you’re reading this, please consider donating cash for the cost of shipping or buying girls sizes 2 to 10. Many adults and children here are malnourished. We do need some larger sizes, but our donations are heavily weighted toward girls size14 up to women’s sizes, some of them very large. Some of these we exchange or donate to the Y women’s shelter, some we bring and give to the JDF clinic midwives and nurses to distribute to their pregnant patients and other women.


Sunset was marked by fire and song, a celebration of an upcoming marriage. Hundreds of people making their way around the village dancing and singing, signaling that the dowry has been agreed upon. The wedding will take place at another time.

In the east, opposite the orange setting sun, a grass fire burned brightly, spewing smoke. The wind carried the smoke away from us, but the fire was large enough to worry Jean and I just a bit. Dau assured me that it was an intentional fire. When the grasses need burning, the neighbors are informed and stand ready with water if necessary, and the perimeter is cleared of brush so that the fire will meet only dirt when it reaches the edge. A controlled burn.

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