The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: south sudan

Knowing for the First Time

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It was T. S. Eliot who provided one of my favourite quotes of all time:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

On any journey there are two kinds of exploration – the journey without and the one within.  For our son Ater both melded into one as he returned to the place of his birth and at the same time attempted to piece together in his young mind and heart developments that were bound to drive him into a deeper place of maturity.

The picture above is of Ater seeing his grandmother for the first time in seven years. We had only just arrived when he discovered her waiting for him on the periphery of the crowd. People were all over him, but once he saw her, he began moving slowly in her direction. I started to video the moment but the look on his face was so profound that I forgot all about it and moved to be with him.

His face was as complex as a map of Africa. She moved to him, arms open wide, and enveloped him in her world again. Suddenly he wept, as did she. He told me later that the memories of her care for him following the years after his mother was shot filled him with gratitude at that moment. They embraced for a long time before she quietly pulled back to examine him. “You have a fine face,” she said in her native Dinka language. He couldn’t respond.

Later they sat on the portico of the mission where we were staying, holding hands and saying words neither could comprehend – he no longer knew Dinka and she had never known English. From watching that scene, I learned once again that love, and family, and roots, and memories possess a language that exceeds all vowels and consonants. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s keen observation in her Der blinde Morder: “Touch comes before sight, before speech.  It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”  If so, a vast array of truth was passed back and forth in those few tender moments. But if, as Mark Slouch says, “Gone is the saddest word in any language,” then surely the happiest must be the word “here.” The tenacity and endurance of love as a language was never more clear to me than in that moment when a young man embraced his past and an old women recaptured her hope.

And then suddenly she up and left, moved by deep feelings that we didn’t comprehend. And Ater just sat there, surrounded by lots of interested faces who just stared at him as tears streamed down his cheeks. My heart fluttered in that instant. I wanted to rush in and embrace him – he’s my boy, after all. But I’ve lived long enough to know that the human heart must grow willing, if not comfortable, with the complexities of profound life once it strikes us. And so, in an action that was totally counter-intuitive for me, I leaned against the wall and let him work it through in his young mind.

And then the most marvelous thing happened. He looked up, saw me, rose and rushed to me in embrace. My God, I’m so thankful I waited, for in that tremor in his bones I held a young life that was reconciling its past and its future in a quick moment of time. I pulled his face down to mine and asked if he was okay. He merely nodded and kissed me on the top of my bald pate.

Tell me: who was the caregiver at that moment? It was him, not me. He was suddenly appreciate of the wonderful gift he had just been granted and it was his way of expressing his thanks.

Look at the video below, shot later that day, and you’ll see he moved about easily in a world that was once filled with rampage, war, want and death. He had returned to a land a peace. But the grandmother he had held earlier that day had gifted him with a protected love that had transcended the deprivations of human dealings.

I watched the grandmother a couple of days later, observing from the sidelines as Ater played with his new friends, and it struck me at that moment that perhaps one of the best things about leading a good and sacrificial life is the opportunity to actually become a memory.  That was all Ater had of her until that week. He suddenly looked up at her and waved and she beamed all over. I studied her face and wondered whether she was herself learning that to live in someone’s heart is to never die.  She was coming to terms with the reality that she had been remembered, that a young boy had captured in his mind all those occasions where she had been there for him. She was coming to terms with the eternal nature of love.

Watch the video and you’ll smile seeing them dance together because to be truly human is to dance. Ater is no longer a boy with a past and a future, but a being with a path ahead of him. But as long as he has memory and a language that is greater than syllables, he will never be at a loss for words.

 

Home, But Not Alone

IMG_2548On Saturday we leave for our big excursion to the Republic of South Sudan.  We take a team of 16 other Canadians with us and there will be lots of challenges.  My health will be an issue since it wasn’t too long ago that I came out of major surgery, but we trust it will hold up.

But this year one special traveller will be journeying with us and for him the next few weeks promise to take him through an emotional roller coaster.  Our son, Ater, is 15, and this will be his first trip back to Sudan since he came to us six years ago.  Then he was just a small boy who, with his sister Achan, had suffered through the loss of their mother and were orphaned at a young age.  Their arrival in Canada proved to be a pivotal moment in their development and they have flourished beyond what we even imagined.

But always – always – Jane and I have known that he was a gift we were meant to nurture.  We have seen enough travail in the world, some of it brutal, to know that adoption is but one of the great redemptive acts by which we help to heal the tragedy of a broken world.  Deep down, it is the troubling acknowledgement that the world is indeed in need of recovery – and compassion.

This trip has come at a time when Ater’s world is full of possibility.  He has a remarkable ability to work with those who suffer – far greater than mine – and yet he is trapped in the years of youth when he still has to work things out.  Two weeks ago he started working at a McDonald’s near to us and life has been good.

What will he think now, as he returns to his ancestral home and revisits the pain he endured as a boy caring for his younger sister following the loss of their mother?  He will see some remarkable changes due to the realities of a peace that has only recently come, and an altered landscape as a result of climate change.  Villages are disappearing as the Sahara encroaches and the rains come weeks late, or not at all.  It was a world he only knew instinctively – its threats, the endless search for food and water, death, love, the endless gnawing of living in a world on the edge of extremes.  Shortly he will view it as an outsider, more objectively, and perhaps with a little alarm.

But inevitably, imperceptibly at first, emotions will come creeping back into his conscience.  This was once his world – the depravity and horror of it, the devotion of a mother’s love, the courage of a remarkable people, the shuddering reality of relentless war, the ongoing responsibility of caring for a young sibling in a world with few resources.

He had been in Canada about six months when he suddenly started screaming in the night. What was it we wondered? We held and affirmed him, feeling totally incapable in the process.  It was only later that he recounted to us of the nightmares he endured at the sight of seeing his mother shot in brutal fashion.  He even remembered the colour of dress she was wearing and how blood suddenly soaked through it.  Will those thoughts come flooding back?  Will he seek to put such things away or embrace them in the relentless tug of the enduring love his mother once gave him?  He lives because she scooped up her children and fled for safety in a war zone. Surely he comprehends what kind of bravery that would take, but will he seek to get to know her better through memory and the surroundings of his homeland?

He will be a rock star over there – the one who escaped to Canada and now even has an iPhone.  He will be healthy and educated and his home community will marvel at the change.  But he is still Sudanese and being back with his people once more will surely reintroduce realities to his young heart that might have lain dormant for a time. We can only pray this his two worlds can begin the process of reconciliation in his wonderful mind.

And what of Jane and me?  Will we handle it well, being there when the questions inevitably arise?  We can only hope so.  As he helps us provide clean water, give goats and sheep to returning exiles and former slaves, and even helps make bricks for the secondary school we are constructing – the only one in the region – will he suddenly see himself in the massive needs of the people around him?  If so, we must be there for him.

Jane will surely come to terms with the reality that this special boy grew in her heart the way he once grew in his Sudanese mother’s womb, and there will be a sense of wonder in that.  And we will watch him together, reflecting on the words of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant:

“There,” she said. She rocked him back and forth. “There, you foolish, beautiful boy who wants to change the world. There, there. And who could keep from loving you? Who could keep from loving a boy so brave and true?”

Brave and true he is, but he is still a boy and he is about to see the world as it once was for him.  Think of him, if you can.  Pray for him even.  For he will be a young man returning home who will hopefully understand he will never be alone again.

And Now For Some Good News

Everything seems to be about domestic issues at present, and it’s clear that there are plenty of them to occupy our attention. But things are happening elsewhere, and many of them are positive and uplifting.

Most of you likely know that my wife Jane and I run a non-governmental organization that takes on relief and development projects in the Republic of South Sudan. Each year we travel to a region there that is situated near the border between north and south Sudan, as well as being located at the border with Darfur. It’s not easy work. Building schools, assisting a medical clinic, running music and art camps, funding women’s programs, providing goats to returning families, and working on a project that provides clean water takes a lot of effort and organization.

We’ve now been at it for a lot of years but the progress made in that time continues to inspire us. Each January we takes teams of average Canadians, who help us oversee the projects. Some of them come back year after year and take on the leadership of some of these efforts. It’s remarkable to watch Canadians make such a concrete difference in one of the world’s most troubled regions and also to witness how the southern Sudanese respond to these efforts. This year we’ll be taking a team of 20 with us in January.

Each year, on the first Sunday in November, we host a music concert that is energized by a number of school choirs and music groups that infuse energy whenever they perform. We have had the likes of Ken Dryden, Romeo Dallaire, and Justin Trudeau speak at the event for us.

This year’s concert is this coming Sunday night. Denise Pelley, a remarkable singer and performer, will be the chief music act once again. I’ll be privileged enough to sing a duet with her, accompanied by the youth choirs. There is no cost for the concert, although an offering is taken part way through, with 100% of the funds going directly to programs in south Sudan. If any of you are in the area, please come out and support these initiatives that for 15 years have been helping the people of the south reconstruct their lives and their villages. We all need a bit of good news and the remarkable journey of Canadians working with the southern Sudanese gives people hope for the future. You can learn more at www.casscanada.net

Humanity – “Is George Clooney There?”

“Is George Clooney right there, with you? Can you see if we can get an interview with him?”

This wasn’t the request I had been hoping for. Yes, George Clooney was in south Sudan, as was former president Jimmy Carter, but the real reason we were all there as international observers was to oversee the southern Sudanese referendum in an effort to attest to its credibility. It was big international news and had profound implications for all of Africa.

So I was a little taken aback when a Canadian national network reached me near the border of Darfur, virtually ignoring the significance of events swirling all around us and wanting to talk to the famed Hollywood actor. In truth, Clooney was confined to his room suffering from malaria, and Carter was everywhere – a respected international figure of peace and democracy who knew Sudan and its struggles well.

The reality that a people struggling for peace following decades of civil war was being eclipsed by a noted actor in their country was more than a little troubling. If any actor deserves some recognition for his part in drawing international attention to south Sudan and the destitute people of Darfur it is surely Clooney. He has done some credible work that would only be possible due to his notoriety.  Yet he continuously struggles with the penchant for individuals, governments and media to focus more on his fame than his passion for the Sudanese.

This is the age of humanitarian celebrities – all attempting to focus our attention on pivotal issues for the survival of all of us.  Some take their field work seriously; others appear in little more than photo ops.  But the attention on celebrities in such arenas points to two changing realities in our modern world. The first concerns affluent governments and their increasing retreat from aid and development commitments that had been promised only a decade ago. The vacuum left from the loss of serious attention to detail has opened the door even further for international celebrities to try to fill the void. It isn’t working to the degree necessary to curtail the growth of destitute poverty in our world – the numbers continue to escalate.

The second reality concerns our perspective as citizens and our loss of world interest in the plight of others.  That isn’t fully true in the area of disaster relief, however. Canadian generosity to places like the Asian tsunami or following Haiti’s devastating earthquake was indeed remarkable and uplifting. Yet in the long-term issues of climate change devastation, generational starvation, growing world hunger, chronic lack of health services, or physical insecurity, we seem to lose interest quickly, as does the media, whose lead we often follow.

As sovereign nations continue to pull into themselves due to the challenge of economic instability, it is only inevitable that we will begin to lose the solid advances we had made in such fields only a few years ago. The implications of this neglect are now ominous and no celebrity culture can save it.

On the other hand, the woman you see at the top of this post is a true hero and celebrity to many of us who have journeyed to Sudan. She poured out of Darfur with thousands of others a few years ago – in most cases without even the clothing on their backs. She was hiding in swamps with the others in order to avoid detection. She had come from much farther in western Darfur. Each time she attempted to settle with her family, militia, trained and supported by Libya’s army of Omar Khadaffi moved her on, but not before killing some of her relatives. When the West determined that Sudanese president Omar Bashir was a war criminal sought by the Criminal Court, the government often took its anger out on people like her.

She began traveling with 12 of her family, but only 4 survived. She lost her husband, sons, daughters-in-law, and her livelihood. But worst of all, by the time Jane and I interviewed her after she had journeyed hundreds of miles to where we were, she had lost her dignity – everything that had once made her who she was. She was a mess and her hair had begun falling out. In a word, she was “empty.” She had given everything to the survival of the children. Only 40 years of age, she looked 70.

There is no need to go into the lengthy list of tragedies she faced on that hectic journey. Our interview with her left us drained, as we realized neither one of us could come close to accomplishing what she had. Looking at her picture now, I see that she was more dynamic that any action figure, had more love for her lost husband than any romantic lead, and possessed a narrative as great as anything Hollywood could put together.

But she lives out of sight of all of us, and for that reason she doesn’t really matter. Her humanity, great as it is, has little effect on our own because we haven’t been paying attention to millions just like her. It’s the George Clooneys that really interest us. Good man that he is, he keeps telling us to focus on the need, not him.  But when a national network seeks to track him down in the wastelands of Darfur instead of telling the remarkable story of what was transpiring all around him, it is clear that our present humanity can only journey so far. We have miles to go yet before we sleep, and we have a world of hurt and suffering to consider as walk.

The Long Road Home

Of all our numerous undertakings, our work in Sudan over the last 15 years has stretched us the most. Something about attempting to function in what was then Africa’s largest country and in the continent’s longest running civil war helps you mature pretty quickly.

When we first journeyed to the region in order to fight slavery we were totally in over our heads – and we knew it. Moreover, we had CBC television and the London Free Press along with us for the duration and feeling a sense of responsibility for their protection when you’re trying to learn the situation yourself was a sobering exercise.

And yet it was life-altering. We had walked into history and we sensed it every minute. It had taken a long time for the world to wake up to the reality that was slavery in Sudan, but once it was “out there” Canadians reacted with alacrity and a far-ranging sense of compassion. Canadians are born for this kind of thing – not just because of our own history as the destination point for the Underground Railroad, but because Canada could boast of a long history in Africa and wonderful heritage of siding with the oppressed over lengthy periods of time.

That first journey was indeed remarkable – as were the umpteen follow-up trips to the region. We were cooperating not just with the southern Sudanese, but with the UN and other countries who were attempting to acquire data and fact-based evidence that slavery was not only a reality, but was in actuality a tool of war. Thanks to the London Police Department, who supplied us with fingerprint training and the tools to go along with it, we were able to provide that evidence in a way that proved conclusive. Moreover, Macleans magazine came with us twice, as did the London Free Press.

These were remarkable days that not only saw us enmeshed in the deep pains of human mortality but also the danger to our own safety. Yet despite all the worry of family and fellow citizens, their backing of our efforts was vibrant and consistent. This is the kind of community we live in and we were but extensions of their compassion and commitment to human justice.

We were there for the end of the war, the deconstruction of slavery, and the eventual peace that was to see south Sudan become the newest nation in the world just last year. Along the way we were able to free over 10,000 slaves, none of which were recaptured. We made thousands of friends, endured many failures, and ultimately shared in the Sudanese success. And, yes, first one, then three children ended up coming to Canada to live with us once their mother was shot attempting to escape slavery with her children in tow.

So many people ask us about those early years and it just seemed that the time was right to chronicle our efforts during a difficult time. And so we agreed that I would write a book if Jane would do the illustrations. What you’ll see in the video below is the final product. The book is available at Amazon.com here, but you can also get a copy from Jane and me if you’re in the London area.

The events recounted in the book are those of two average Canadians caught in exceptional circumstances. More important, we were backed by a community and a media that wanted the story told. In that telling, the world grew aware of a massive atrocity and their response brought the worst part of slavery to an end.

The entire thing was a human drama from beginning to end – just as the book recounts. Yet when we go back to Sudan every January we see these former slaves, now attending school, operating a micro-enterprise, enjoying the grandchildren, and yet still suffering deprivation. A few yet wear Canadian pins in their ears and the Canada flag flies proudly over the schools that have been constructed by the good people of Canada. Our biggest development challenge now is raising funds to build a secondary school for Darfur refugees. To see more of what we’re doing, check out www.casscanada.net.

The Long Road Home is a tale well worth the telling; perhaps you’ll find it worth reading. The cost of the book is next to nothing, but the blood lost in the telling and the many friends we lost along that journey make it priceless to us. This is just the kind of stuff Canada does, and a new nation has resulted that owes a tad of its new birth to the generosity of Canadians. We walked that path together and, indeed, it was a long road home.

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