On the surface, the purpose of my visit to South Sudan is pretty straightforward. Since I am writing a dissertation about the history of the church here during the 1980s and 1990s, and since that was a period of civil war from which few written documents survive, my primary goal is oral history interviews with the men and women who were central to the church during that period. It’s relatively recent, so many of them are still alive and active in ministry.
Sounds easy, right?
Last week, I was trying to find a woman named Mary Aruay. During South Sudan’s civil war, she was a critical evangelist who travelled all over her county, founding about two dozen churches, mentoring hundreds of young people, and ultimately laying the foundations for her home area to be turned into a thriving archdeaconery where before it had no churches of any kind. It is an accomplishment all the more remarkable for the fact that she was a single, childless woman in a society in which marriage and children are prized.
The first thing was to locate her. Aruay is now retired and living in Rumbek, where I am staying, so it spared me a trip to her home county. But it’s not like South Sudan has many street names or numbered houses. You just kind of have to know where a person lives and then start heading in that direction and ask for the person as you go along. This means I was traveling with John, the bishop’s assistant, who was also doubling as my translator. We only had to ask once before we found our way to the church near Aruay’s home.
While we waited for her to arrive, a stream of other people came to see us. It’s not often a khawaja makes it to this part of town, so there were lots of young children. But several older people came as well—clergy, youth in the church, the archdeacon of the area—who wanted to know just what this khawaja thought was so interesting in Aruay to come all this way to see her.
Eventually, Aruay herself arrived and we launched into the interview. I used to be a reporter. Most of the interviews I did for that job involved pulling people to the side of a room or talking to them in a sound-proof studio. That is, they were more or less private affairs. Not here. To have a khawaja ask an older woman questions about her life was just such a strange and mysterious event that the crowd we had gathered decided to stay. Their contributions were various. One child fell asleep and started snoring. Another fell off the bench he was sitting on and started crying. A few of the youth spoke English and at a few moments decided John’s translation was not good enough and so offered their own. Some of the other clergy occasionally thought that they had a good answer to my question—or that Aruay’s answer was missing some crucial detail—so they freely volunteered their own answers. So much for the private interview. It was like having a Greek chorus peering into my conversation.
To them I am not just a doctoral student (which is a hard concept to communicate in a place where so few people even graduate from high school) but a priest and a fellow Christian. When I was done asking questions about the past, they wanted to tell me about the present and the future—their plans to turn their archdeaconery into a diocese, the challenges they currently confront, and how important it was to them that I had come to visit. We finished in prayer.
My understanding and expectations of my research are shaped by knowledge of a certain cultural form—the private, one-on-one interview. But that’s a cultural form that is largely foreign in South Sudan. Much more common than one-on-one conversation is the group conversation of everyone sitting around together under a tree. What I perceive as people butting in to my conversation is really just them doing what they always do.
And in the end, it didn’t matter. I got some great information from Aruay—and some of what other people said will be helpful too. And they seemed to appreciate my presence. Over the weekend, she sent a message to the bishop: “Thank you for sending that khawaja to see me so I could tell him my story. I now feel like I am leaving something behind for others.”