nICOLE | SUDAN
I have just returned to Melbourne after being in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan for the past nine months.
The Nuba Mountains is a wilderness… Rugged mountains, dirt rough roads that turn to mud in the wet season, countless seasonal rivers, mud brick tukels with straw roofs, clumps of mango trees, plots of sorghum, boreholes, women carrying water, bundles of fire wood, men looking after cattle, goats, sheep, children playing with stones and dirt. The Nuba Mountains is located south of Sudan; it is rich in a variety of minerals including gold, water and fertile soil. The Nuba people are Christians, Muslim and animists and live together in relative peace and goodwill. Peace, and the opportunity to develop their territory is a common hope. The Khartoum government started bombing its own people in the Nuba Mountains in June 2011, only six years after the 22-year war between the north and south ended with South Sudan being made the world’s newest country.
Living in a state of constant alert became ‘normal’ for me. At the sound of an antonov or a jet everyone ran to a fox hole for protection. Thousands of people have died or suffered horrendous injuries from flying shrapnel released by the bombs. The latest weapons deployed by Bashir in December 2013 are Sukhoi-25 jets releasing parachute-retarded bombs that do not all explode on impact. Many women and children have been shred to pieces because they climbed out of the fox holes thinking they were safe. It was heart wrenching sitting on the side of the bed of the wounded…words were inadequate, there was but shared silence and the meeting of eyes.
My ministry involved teaching 23 men and 7 women studying to be primary school teachers; running a creative arts program for children in Mother of Mercy Hospital; feeding and washing wounded soldiers when there was need for ‘all hands on deck’ to cope with the overwhelming numbers after bloody battles; facilitating personal and team development workshops for Voice of Peace Radio staff. I heard many people’s story. I saw the utter gruesomeness of war.
The Nuba are a tenacious, resilient people. They have lived with war, hunger and isolation, most of their lives. Many Nuba have told me that their first thought on waking in the morning is ‘I’m still alive! God must have a purpose for my life.’ I find this statement a profound proclamation of faith. Along with their sense of gratitude that seems to permeate their day. The Nuba hang in there with life whatever their lot may be. I wonder often, ‘why are we born where we are born? What if I was born in the Nuba Mountains?
Since returning to Melbourne many people have asked me if the materialism of ‘here’ makes me frustrated and angry and how do I cope with the abundance of access and choice. Over the years I have been in a number of developing or struggling countries: Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Philippines and Romania. Initially re-entry into Australia was very difficult – guilt at having so much plagued me. Now I see an ever greater abundance of all kinds of stuff and a vast range of choices and access to more and more services. That strong guilt of the past is not there. Rather a sense of calm that this is how it is here and this is how it is in the Nuba Mountains. I can live in both places.
Having said that a flush loo, a shower and a comfortable bed have been greatly enjoyed. Perhaps it is a sign of my aging or greater gentleness for myself. I smile at the depth of my gratitude. And I concede that being confronted with having to make a choice about which brand of bread and yoghurt to buy is far more taxing that knowing that those choices are not before me in the Nuba. There is one kind of bread and packaged yoghurt does not exist. This opens up further dimensions to the Bamboo principles of simplicity, solidarity and contemplation. The challenge of making choices of taking responsibility for those choices takes effort and attention.
As the days unfold I wonder what true development might look like – is less, more; what dignity for all might look like – reasonable access for all. Will I- we ever ‘wake up’ across the globe and recognise that what is done here has an impact on there…that we are indeed interconnected with one another with the universe; that this reality has profound meaning and consequences.
For many of us our deepest peace and happiness are not found in access and having a lot of stuff but rather in developing friendships. And, knowing the experience of intimacy that comes with being heard and understood; the joy of sharing the surrounding natural beauty; the touching into another’s hopes and desires; the solace of presence.
I recognise more and more that the deep restless longing in me occurs wherever I am. Living simply, the experiencing of solidarity and developing a contemplative way of being, are guides into moving further into that restless longing. A longing that mysteriously holds the experience of ‘oneness’.
Nicole Rotaru rsm
Nicole Rotaru is a Sister of Mercy committed to listening deeply to the call of the Gospel and trusting in the providence of God while wondering about the ambiguities, paradoxes and mysteries in life. She is currently living in Melbourne.