Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Letters From The Sudan

Our Christ the King Parish Priest in Malakal, Father Stephen, is generally a quiet man but he is a source of much interesting information. Stephen has spent all his life in Malakal, remaining here throughout the war years, and is now the leader of the parish in which he grew up. He is fluent in Arabic, English and Shilluk and has a useful knowledge of several other local languages. The use of language is an ongoing problem here in Southern Sudan principally because there are so many languages.

This is a primitive country in so many ways but the widespread ability to converse in several languages far exceeds what one finds in first world countries such as Australia. Children rise to challenges, turn problems into opportunity, and can acquire all kinds of abilities if given the chance.

In Malakal, the predominant language is ‘Arabic’. In Juba it is ‘Arabic Juba’. Apparently the
similarity of ‘Arabic’ to ‘Arabic juba’ is about as close as ‘English’ is to ‘Pigeon English’. In
Malakal I would like to be able to speak Arabic, English and Shilluk; in Juba my choice would be
Arabic Juba, English and Bari. There are so many Dinka, that Dinka would be a good language to know also. There is such a thing as an English-Dinka dictionary. If I visit our work in Yambio,
however, what I really need is Azande. In a near-by Lebanese restaurant, I found myself
communicating in faltering French. The owner speaks Arabic and French but not English.
English is officially the language of the south and is possibly the most universal but Arabic
dominates in Upper Nile State where Malakal is situated. At a recent meeting, I heard the
Director of one of the County Offices complain: ‘We have no-one in our area who can teach
English adequately’.

For those of us who claim to speak English, the locals struggling to learn English must wonder at
the variations we bring. I personally find it difficult to adjust to the differing English
pronunciations of the various nationalities involved here – Indian, Sri Lankan, Irish, Canadian
and the many African variations in the English spoken by the Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians
and Sudanese. All songs in Africa seem to be converted to a drum beat rhythm – even
‘Kumbaya’. I eventually recognised a popular hymn as the drum beat version of this song.
Would you believe that some find my Aussie accent quaint and hard to understand, even before I
indulge in the use of any of our plethora of Aussie idioms? Further, we English speakers do not
all attach the same connotations to the same words. Whereas ‘wench’, for example, in one
country may describe nothing more than a flirtatious girl, in another it is a deeply offensive
epithet. It becomes important not to take offence when none is intended.

There are also unintentional mistakes. Someone recently used the word ‘masticate’ in talking to
me when I think the word she really wanted to use was ‘massage’. To masticate someone is not
quite the same as to massage! Some years ago, when visiting Papua New Guinea, I was amused
to read a misprint in an advertisement placed in the local paper on behalf of ‘Our Lady of the
Scared (sic) Heart’. This week another mistake caught my attention. The agenda paper for the
Malakal education meeting I attended referred to a consortium of NGOs led by ‘Mercy Corpses’
(sic). That, I would think, was unintentionally imposing a death wish on the ‘Mercy Corps!’
Sudan is a strange mix of old and new, traditional and modern, attraction and repulsion.

There are signs up, largely ignored I notice, in the Juba parish church to ‘please turn off mobile phones’. To drive a vehicle one needs a driving licence. Yet one shares the road with ten-year-old boys driving unlicensed donkey carts along with many other unlicensed people, pigs, goats, dogs, ducks, geese and cattle. At night, the vehicles generally have lights but again not so the carts, animals or pedestrians! Twice in one day I stopped to let a pig pass. Pigs, much fewer in number, seem less alert than the goats and donkeys that generally take some minimal avoidance action of their own when a vehicle approaches. The occasional cat also displays much more avoidance alacrity than most of the humans!

Lots of people here, mostly male, enjoy sitting, watching and waiting. The UN officer told us he
traveled by helicopter with an aid cargo of several tons of rice. When they arrived, he was
bemused by the fact that women unloaded the rice while all the men were sedentary spectators.
He also remarked that he had been twenty years in the UN service and had thought the last place
he was in – Sierra Leone - was by far the worst, until he came here! ‘I’ve been here since Sept. 15
and I hope I’m not here too long’ he stated. ‘The people simply do not want to work – and their
tukuls. I haven’t seen anything like them for a long time. It is primitive.’

Already activity in Juba is closing down as the substantial overseas contingent heads for
Christmas at home. Many NGO personnel do six-month tours of duty with at least one rostered
holiday period during that time. It is not surprising people see more commitment from priests and religious. I find myself thinking of the beautiful words I once heard, and have remembered ever since: ‘You cannot love all mankind, only people, one at a time. The one you are with is the one that counts’. Love is not a generality. It is how we treat the individuals we meet, no matter who they are or where they are. As we prepare for Christmas may we once again recall that the ones we are with are the ones who count. If we don’t love them, we don’t love at all.

Br Bill

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