The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: slavery

They Are You


WELL, THEY MADE IT.  FROM THE MOMENT THEY were reunited eight years ago, our twins, Abuk and Achan, were destined to have their lives interwoven for the rest of time. Today they turn 14 and will soon be entering high school. Upstairs, in their room, I can hear them giggling over a video Abuk made her sister for her birthday, and I think, history, humanity and God all blessed Jane and me with the charge of bringing them to this point, and farther. The very fact they are now dying of laughter – together – means that we got some things right.

But what must you, their Sudanese mother think, if you can see them now. The last time you saw them together was just a few moments before you were shot in a raid in south Sudan. You were holding four-month-old Abuk in your arms as you breathed your last. Achan and her older brother were recaptured in that moment and dragged back to captivity. Did you, their mother, see that separation and perish with a broken heart at the thought? Did you feel you had attempted to escape slavery with all of them together only to see them torn apart in recapture? We weren’t there, but I can only hope your eyes closed before that moment.

But how I pray that they are wide open right now. Listen to your children, laughing, squealing in delight, together and yet so distinct – just as you would hope they would be. You will never have seen a video or even heard of an iPod, but the images on those screens are of your ultimate accomplishment – children on the verge of exciting maturity. Every Sudanese mother wants education for her children, especially her daughters, more than anything and we understand that. But look at them now. High school beckons, and then university. You never dreamed that was possible in south Sudan did you? But it’s happening because you made a break, risking your life so that your children wouldn’t grow up under the hard hand of a master but under the open air of self-determination and in a land in which they can make their own way.

As far as we know, no photos exist of you. Your two daughters cannot recall what you looked like because you perished when they weren’t even half-a-year old. But I have a hunch what you were like because surely your personality shines through in them today. I bet you laughed like they do, at least before life took away that joy through slavery. When I picture you, having not known you, I see you with a smile.

When they came they were shy and more than just a little intimidated. But only a few months later they displayed a determination that amazed all of us. They didn’t acquire that endurance from us, but you – it’s in them until this day. You must have been remarkable in your bravery because they are too. They are young women, fierce in their gender and determined in their will to succeed. Thank you for giving them that because it sure made bringing them up easier. We are parents who fiercely believe in equality, but they already had that instinct thanks to you.

They believe in family, just as you surely did, or else why would give you life for them? You should see them around your son, Ater. They tease him relentlessly and love him like no one else. The three of them still dance and sing together and I am haunted daily by their sheer joy of being together. How did you instill that in them, because I’ve never seen anything quite like it?

Yes, I think I know you through them. You have endowed womanhood and motherhood with a grace and courage that is affirmed every day through the actions and emotions of those you brought into this world.

We have just concluded Easter, where the phrase, “There is no greater love than that of one who lays down his life for his friends” pretty well sums up its meaning. Well, you represent the apex of that truth. You fought for children – your own and others. You took risks to escape a life of bondage. You gave your life for your children and in the process gave that life to us. You, a marvelous woman, represent the greatness of the human race.

Jane and I have put two pictures in this blog. The first is on the day they first discovered one another in Sudan after they each thought the other was dead. The other is of their grad dresses they’ll be donning in a few weeks. I want you to see them as they are right now – robust, full of life, capable of courage, beautiful in body and spirit, and brimming with potential. They are you. Congratulations.

Tonight, when the girls head off to bed, we’ll pray and thank God for you, as we always do. “Our brave Africa mommy” is now part of our lexicon and in common use in this house. But I’ll remind them of that old African saying that “a single bracelet does not jingle.” Well, believe me, these kids jingle. Having one another has defined them and given them voice.

And then as we kiss them goodnight, I am going to think of another African saying: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And that is just what Achan and Abuk will do. And as a family, over the years that remain, we choose and demand the right to go with you – their first mom, a genuine hero, a woman of the ages.

Who Knew?

Twins (1)

Achan and Abuk a few moments after meeting one another – 2005

They were violently wrenched apart at only four months of age.  Too young to understand what happened, they likely were terrified by the sound of gunshots and their mother covered in blood.  One was immediately ushered away while the other lay in a tangle of bodies, nestling in the arms of her dead mother.

For years they both lived separate lives, aware that the other had once existed, but believing that death had taken the other.  They were informed they had once had an identical twin but that life and war had conspired to separate them forever.  The one lived and thrived in Canada, aware of her loneliness but surrounded by everything wonderful.  The other fought for life in Darfur, also aware of loneliness but with nothing present that could ease the feeling of alienation and fear.

On a single day in 2005 they bumped into one another beside an airplane on a dirt airstrip in South Sudan.  They looked at each other, fascinated by the resemblance, but too young to understand what was happening.  To the amazement of all, they later grasped hands and walked away from the crowd, holding on to a soccer ball.  Time stood still.  The earth stopped rotating. Destiny was in the making.

It was later that day that the identical twins learned that other had, in fact, survived but half a world apart.  While they kicked the soccer ball in the dirt, forces at play on two continents had already begun to reunite them in Canada. This was Abuk and Achan, our twin girls, and an ever-present reminder that not only do miracles yet occur, but they mature over the years to the amazement of those willing to see.  Today, they become teenagers.  At thirteen years of age they have defied the odds and brought honour to their two mothers – one dead, the other preciously alive.  To this day, they look individually in the mirror and see the other.  They look at each other and see themselves.

For those around them there has been the discovery that there are two things for which we are never fully prepared – twins.  They stand as one of the unique unfoldings of creation and humanity.  They remind all of us that every once in a while two people come into life together, sharing possibilities as they once shared a womb.  And they are an eternal reminder that they share an African mother that lost her life in her pursuit of their freedom and in that reality they will ever be bound to a remarkable woman leaving them with an inspiring legacy.

But there is more.  They share another mother, a Canadian woman, who also risked her life for their freedom.  Only this Mom they get to keep – and what a keeper she is.  In so many ways she is younger in spirit than they are, more capable of spontaneous joy than anyone else in our family.  And as they mature they will ever be captured by the memory and knowledge that this mother lives every waking moment treating the rest of humanity like she treats these precious girls.

I ask you, what were the odds that they would be together for their teenage birthdays?  The war, the famine, death of their mother, in remotest Africa, disease, lack of water, noticed by only a few people in their village willing to care for them – such things conspire to wipe out lives and possibilities.

But not for these two.  They live and are as different as identical twins usually are.  Yet they are the living embodiment of Louisa May Alcott’s observation – “We’re twins, and so we love each other more than other people.”

This is a day of possibilities, of reminders that should we but enter into the pains of humanity we might yet rescue people from their circumstances and unleash their marvelous humanity in our generation – and theirs.

There is a custom in South Sudan that tells of how a mother who has died but whose twins remain separated hovers over the earth in her efforts to reunite them.  If unsuccessful she takes them to heaven to be with her.  If successful, and they come together on earth, she is free.  The village sacrificed a bull in honour of the twins and as they looked on with Jane they could hardly have understood what this meant to the Sudanese.  One mother from Canada had one last slave to free – a weary Sudanese mother of twins attempting to bring them together.  In that one act they were united before the entire village and their African mother could cease from her labours.  Go, then, Sudanese Mom, and rest.  They live.  They thrive.  They love.  And they will ever be reminded that you sacrificed your all so that they might have a shot at living.  If you could only see them now.  It was a sacrifice worth making in every sense of the word.  We thank God for every thought of you – a towering woman.  Just think, your twin girls are thirteen today.  Who knew?

We Have Overcome

This past weekend was the date of our annual Sudan concert, where numerous school choirs come together with some pretty special soloists and musicians to help raise funds for our ongoing projects in Sudan. It was the 10th year for the concert and, upon reflection, I learned some wonderful lessons while listening to the music.

A decade ago, the first concert was about slavery – its habitual practice in Sudan and the brutal realities of people owning other people, often to their denigration and tragedy. We had been to Sudan on so many occasions during that time that the realities of modern-day slavery had begun to affect our joint disposition. In so many ways our visits to the region during the costly civil war had given us a new resolve that we would never let local issues or our domestic lives cloud from the realities of greater human injustices and the need for citizens to weigh in with their best efforts. The barbarism of what we witnessed had slowly convinced us that we would never see the end of slavery there in our lifetimes – hatred and enmity of the two sides of the war ran that deep. But we were wrong, happily mistaken, as within a few years peace was signed despite impossible conditions. We were there, saw it with our own eyes, and marvelled at the outcomes. Slavery had been overcome – not just within our lifetimes, but actually with the help of so many great Canadians like those in attendance at the concert.

And then there was the awful condition of the women of south Sudan. We had travelled extensively to war zones in times previous but nothing had prepared us for what we witnessed. Yet despite the depravity and the sheer indignities those women faced, they kept their resolve and their communities together. Jane and I made a pact that we would work with them, regardless of the costs to ourselves. It all seemed so hopeless at the time – the rapes, the loneliness, the butchery, the poverty and the conflict. But now the same women are leaders within the government of south Sudan. They have become the primary change and development agents of their respective communities because they had remained in such places during the war when others had abandoned them. To the great credit of all of them, they had prevailed – no, not prevailed, they had overcome decades of male domination and rank prejudice and racism to reconstruct their land more in the image of peace. They will forever remain in my mind and memory as the strongest human beings I have ever met.

And then there has been the change in Jane and me. We looked at the world a little differently a decade ago. Through the lens of Sudan things appeared dark, foreboding, limiting, and, at times, beyond despair. Our meagre efforts at rescuing slaves and building schools during a particularly costly civil war were simply overpowered by the sheer determination of the Sudanese themselves that they would not go quietly into the history books as a suppressed people or a vanquished one. In those years when we believed we were assisting them, it was their resolve, their remarkable grace in the face of manic oppression, that in fact rescued us from our gloom. Today we look out over our troubled world through the ideals of our youth that have endured despite all we have seen, experienced, and lived through. We are young again in the belief that wars and slavery can end, women can rebuild their countries in much more equitable ways than any time previous, and that Canadians, for all their complaining, can still influence the world in the ways of peace. So, yes, in a word, Jane and I have overcome. By being involved in the big issues, our hearts grew in equal measure, as has our optimism.

You’ll see a video below of the last song of the concert. And you’ll notice I’m singing in it. It has been decades since I used to sing in various venues, but on this particular night I performed just one more time because I wanted people to know that I have grown and to a certain degree have made a difference. The song I sing is Bob Dylan’s Blowin In the Wind – the old protest song that reminded a generation that change was in the air. I sang it because I believe it – though I’ve grown impatient in the waiting for it. It was time to bring out the old rusty vocal chords once more and join with some remarkable Canadians in singing the song of freedom. It’s time we picked up the refrain once more, fighting for it overseas and within or own borders. Change is comin’.

No Mere Dream Date

Thirteen years of marriage is a very brief time to fill with all the adventures we have had over the years. Jane and I are deeply aware that our life has not been an ordinary sojourn – anything but. There’s a reason for that and it has nothing to do with me.

Even as I type these words, Jane is packing for her and her mother as they head out tomorrow to Churchill, Manitoba on the train. Her mom is 89 years old and I haven’t seen her this excited in a long time. She knows that with Jane there everything will be taken care of. This is just what my wife does – inspires people to press the envelope, regardless of age or caution. While her mom reads her books in Churchill, Jane will be in her wetsuit, swimming with the Beluga whales – just like her.

It was on our first trip to Sudan all those years ago that I suddenly understood that being with Jane could be a dangerous thing. It wasn’t because we were in a war zone or that we were attempting to avoid enemy troops as we sought to locate slaves seeking their freedom. I’ve spent a lifetime in such conditions, so we were a good match that way. No, Jane suddenly became dangerous because I discovered she was helping me to believe in the impossible. Such people turn our worlds upside down. We all have values, but, over time, we come to our personal accommodations with them, coming to terms with the fact that we’ll be lucky to see some of our dreams come true. My wife breaks those limitations, not by rhetoric or argument, but by living out her ideals to the very limit of their reach.

We had just finished identifying a number of slaves, mostly women, seated under the shade of a tree and looking concerned that they might not find their freedom. We had purchased that liberty through funds we had raised in Canada, but these struggling Sudanese women didn’t know anything about that. Jane rose from the ground and addressed them through an interpreter. “You’re free to go your own way,” she began. “Find your families. Live your life. Build a better world with your freedom.” In an instant I realized I was listening to a great liberator – not just of others, but of me. It was then I knew that this is who I wanted permanently in my life. We sat back to back, on the ground, and ruminated over what we had just experienced. Even there I knew her spine was stronger than mine.

But she has been dangerous, let me tell you. In her journeys to Iraq during the Gulf War, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, the Congo, and now Sudan, she has never been content to leave a place without making life better, even for just a few. She has made me younger, and if you could have seen her mother today you would have thought she was a spring chicken. This is the effect of Jane Roy on the lives of others.

I can’t get a fix on the exact moment I became overwhelmed by her goodness; instead, I was just kind of baptized into it. It wasn’t about the words, gestures, looks, or even touch. It was the sense of human movement, that I was journeying out into my world and it was going to feel the effect of my presence specifically because I was affected by Jane’s abiding company. This is a powerful revelation and stands at the root of all great loves. She had immersed me into humanity and I was in the depths of it already before I realized just how much I loved her.

Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” I understand what she meant, but that’s not me. Personal dignity – at home, with friends, in my community, in Sudan, or even in the House of Commons – to me is the inspiration for true character. Jane makes me truly happy, but it’s a byproduct of respectfulness and humility she has brought to our relationship.

So, here’s to you, Jane. To the climbing of Kilimanjaro to the savanna of Africa; from feeding the hungry to chasing our desire for adventure; from enjoying our moments alone to those times when the kids jump in our bed and won’t leave us alone; from the building of a family to the construction of a deck; from the jumping into life to the pursuit of each other. But behind it all is this absolutely restless desire to heal our world – to give without getting, to learn humility with honour, from burying those that perished to bringing new life out of slavery. It’s always – repeatedly and, yes, at times dangerously – about helping others. I was like that before I met you, but you refined me, bettered me, and taught me that sacrificing for love of others can be a spontaneous thing.

You are a darling, Jane, not because you’re mine but because you’re you and in the beauty of your character you have become the servant of all humankind – God, I love that. Tonight, while you’re asleep, my eyes will be wide open because I’ll be living in the world of Dr. Seuss – “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” This is my reality. You are more than a dream date or a loving wife and terrific mother. You are life as God meant it lived. Thank you for taking me along.

No Mere Flights of Fancy

Jane reminded me today of one more rather distant connection with had with Queen Elizabeth II, whose 60th Jubilee is being celebrated today.

Most readers will know of the rather hazardous journey Jane and I took into Sudan in 2001 to find who would eventually become our adopted daughter Abuk. The civil war was in full swing and any travel was precarious.

We managed to find an air company willing to fly us to the area close to where we heard Abuk was situated. We arrived at Wilson Airport in Nairobi early in the morning and were led onto a larger than normal two-engined aircraft. Though it had been modified a number of times, it had clearly seen better days. That is the plane you see at the top of this post. As we flew into the war-torn region of south Sudan, the pilot informed us that the plane we were on was the one Queen Elizabeth flew on when she found out that her father, the King, had died. She flew on it to Entebbe in Uganda before journeying home to be officially crowned.

For those who don’t know the story, she had bid her father farewell in England, knowing he was ill. But her duties as a princess were to take her to Kenya, Australia and New Zealand.

Elizabeth and Philip were staying at the Sagana Lodge in rural Kenya, and she was photographing some wildlife as Philip took an afternoon nap. He was awoken and told of King George’s death. He said he would tell his wife, whereupon he took her for a long walk to break the news. Everything was turned upside down as she prepared to journey back to England and replace her father. She is pictured here leaving the lodge after hearing the news and on her way to the airplane that Jane and I eventually flew in.  She was taken to nearby Nanyuki, and then on to Entebbe where her official plane waited to take her back to England.

By the time we got on that plane decades later it was on its last legs. We held Abuk in our arms as we sat among goats, sheep and a few harried passengers attempting to escape the war. Thinking back on it today, I was reminded that it had carried at least two remarkably important passengers in its lifetime – a new Queen, and an escaped slave child that was about to find her new home in Canada – a remarkable connection that makes today even more special.

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