The Land of Giants…
I didn’t think much of my work trip to Lakes State, South Sudan. I was traveling to the capital city of Rumbek to conduct a workshop for a political party. But what seemed like a routine trip to one of the ten states in South Sudan turned into a fascinating trip into the heart of Dinka Territory. I had learned a great deal about the Dinkas in my readings about South Sudan. One of my colleagues is from the Dinka tribe. But in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, people come from all over the country. There are tall Nuer, short Kakwa, brown and black skinned people. The capital is a melting pot of South Sudanese tribes and ethnicities. But arriving in Lakes State, I felt that I had traveled to a new planet, where the shortest person was 6’1. As an American of slightly above average height (6’0), I felt short among the giants of the Dinka tribe. The workshop towered with men and women whose heads were only inches from the ceiling. It was a sight to behold.
The highlight of my trip to Lakes State was getting to know 21 year old Peter Matau Atel. Peter had just recently joined the political party that we were training and he was excited to participate in our workshop. Over the course of the three days, he became my translator for the women who spoke only Dinka. For some reason the women took a keen interest in me (it would be later revealed to me why they were fascinated by looks). In talking with Peter, they were intrigued by my gums – yes, my gums. While my skin color and mannerisms were different, my gums had a striking resemblance to their gums. It was a trait that we shared and they wanted to know why. I tried to explain that my ancestors had also come from Africa so I am sure it one of those things that was passed down through genetics. While I think Peter understood what I was trying to say, the women giggled to themselves and mumbling a few things that I could not understand and eventually walked off. I was later informed by my co-worker that teeth and gums were an attractive feature on men. So maybe I was being hit on and had no clue what was going on. After our discussion on ancestors and lineage, I began to refer to Peter as my cousin since we both had family lineage in Africa (my connection to Africa arrived in the US about 200-300 years ago). He laughed each time I made the reference.
One of the greatest joys about living in South Sudan is getting to know the people that live in this new nation. They have completely changed the way I see people and how I form first impressions. I really enjoy hanging out with my national colleagues and the people I meet in this country. Living among people and “trying” to see them the way God sees them, has helped to breakdown stereotypes and misunderstandings that are often formed about people when I see them through my American lenses. This is not to say that I do not get frustrated by the culture at times or challenged by the living conditions.(I am posting this blog from outside South Sudan because I was in need of a break) I’m human and I have formed my own social norms. But I have enjoyed my three months getting to know the citizens of South Sudan – especially outside of Juba.