By Diana Spann
Since 2010 I have been traveling to South Sudan, first as a volunteer and now as my job. I feel as if I have one foot, as well as my heart, in each country. This wonderful adventure has changed my life and how I view the world.
In the beginning, re-entry to the United States was a big shock to my senses. I have learned to navigate the change with much more grace in recent trips. My biggest struggle upon return has been the judgment and anger I can feel toward those that complain about things I now see as luxuries when compared to other parts of the world. My friends have been on the receiving end of my rants when someone complains about a pothole, and then must endure a lecture about how great our roads are, potholes included, compared to dirt roads during rainy season in South Sudan.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s become my mantra. Google says it may have been penned by anyone from Socrates to the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams, but my understanding of it is that we all have blind spots in our knowledge. The information exists, but we just don’t know about it. I am learning that I can’t hold others accountable for what they don’t know. This mantra helps me to be more gracious and it has helped me focus on my mission here in the United States, to be a voice and advocate for my friends in South Sudan and to help others see what I have seen.
So what do I want you to know that you may not know? I want to tell you about my second country, South Sudan: the newest nation on the globe. If you look at a map and can’t find it, you don’t have the most current map. After a civil war with the north that lasted nearly 60 years, they gained independence from Sudan. On July 9, 2011, they celebrated this with great hope for a peaceful future.
There was hope for peace, hope for education, hope for opportunities to develop businesses and build a nation. Tragically, in December 2013 civil war broke out in this fragile new nation. President Salva Kirr of the Dinka tribe and then Vice-president Riek Machar of the Nuer tribe led the government. These leaders, from the two largest tribes in the nation, have sadly led the nation back into war, devastation, and oppression.
I don’t want to flood you with a bunch of statistics, but to give you an idea of the status of this country, here are a few. South Sudan was number one in 2015 on the Fragile States Index (http://fsi.fundforpeace.org) and number two in 2016. This study looks at economic, social, and political factors to rank the nations of the world. The July 2016 inflation rate for food was 788.6% and is expected to climb. I asked a friend in South Sudan about prices and he said that a bag of sugar is now approaching $50 USD and flour is $39 USD.
As a woman, I want to give you a more personal glimpse of what life looks like for the women there. As a woman in South Sudan, there is about a 90% chance that you are not able to read and have never been to school, if there is a school in your village. A large chunk of your day is spent carrying 40 pounds of water on your head and it may not even be clean. Actually, you’ll be carrying everything on your head: jugs of water, food, firewood, etc. You will be working in a garden or searching for food.
Your family is probably large with many brothers and sisters because your mother might be one of several wives. You will not be valued as much as your brothers. Chances are high that you will be married as a teenager. It is possible that your husband will also have several wives. Chances are good that you will be a victim of rape or spousal abuse.
Once you are married, there are few options for birth control. Your first child will likely be born while you are a teenager and if you have the national average of seven pregnancies, it is likely one will die at birth. If you have seven children chances are high that one will die before they are five and your chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth is about one in seven.
You and your family will live in a mud hut called a tukul where you cook meals over an open fire. You and your family will likely suffer from malaria and/or intestinal worms.
With little access to health care or the medicine used to prevent and cure these problems, you will carry out your taxing duties while dealing with these diseases.
While I have painted a fairly accurate picture of life for women and their families in South Sudan, I also want you to know that they are like you. They want the same things you want. They want to feed their children, keep them safe, and educate them. They long for them to flourish and excel just like you! And in the midst of great barriers, they exude hope and joy along with their suffering and despair. They have a contentment that we strive for in the United States.
Why should you care about the rest of the world? The best way I can explain it is to define the word shalom. Maybe you have heard this word and think of it as a greeting or to mean peace as in lack of conflict. In South Sudan, we use the Arabic translation, Salaam, as a greeting. But, the meaning is much larger and richer than that. Shalom means complete, whole, sound, content, the fullness of God. It means that all is set right in the world.
How can we experience Shalom when so much of the world is not set right? NOW you know what you didn’t know about South Sudan. Much of what I have described is happening all over the world. One look at the news or social media and we know that suffering and injustice are happening in our nation, our cities and in our neighborhoods.
Why did I tell you and what do I expect you to do with this information? The United States is probably one of the “easiest” countries in the world to live in! Most of us have clean water, sound infrastructure, and access to food and healthcare. We are not a fragile state. I don’t want you to feel guilty; that doesn’t help. What I do want is for you to look outward. Pay attention. Educate yourself. Read “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, where they document the conditions of women around the world. Read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, where he tells the story of his own journey to fight for those who have been oppressed in our own legal system. Google sex-trafficking in your city, and when you realize it is happening in your city then look for and join organizations that are fighting it. Talk with the principal at your local school, see how you can help. Contact me and I’ll take you to coffee and talk about South Sudan.
Melinda Gates was interviewed recently at the Global Leadership Summit and said this: “At the end of the day, you have to hear the cries of those in need, let your heart break and act in courage”. My prayer is that you will do that. Let God break your heart, and then find courage. Find the one thing you were made to do, participate in setting right what is wrong, and healing what is broken. Bring Shalom.
My name is Diana Spann and I am a former CPA who left the corporate world in March of 2015 to join http://empower-one.org. I am passionate about my work in South Sudan and sharing my story. My desire is to educate others and advocate for the people in South Sudan. I am available to speak for your organization. I am also available for coffee and conversation. For more information you can contact me at Diana@empower-one.org or 214.502.3516. Let’s have coffee.