I don’t recall when I first heard the story of Job sitting on a dunghill. I do remember thinking I don’t really want to be that close to God if that is how God tests those who are his friends! It is easy enough to accept that the poor deserve our special care and concern.
That is quite straight-forward and not so threatening: we share the bounty we have received with those less fortunate. It is, however, an altogether greater leap in faith to accept that we should be happy and continue to praise God in wretched circumstances; but, in Agok, that is what the people do!
God, the Church and the Christian message have a central place in the lives of the displaced people of Abyei. More than that, their faith seems to provide meaning and solace in a situation that many of us would simply describe as ‘very miserable’. One does not find sadness or self-pity here. Rather the displaced people of Abyei exhibit pride, dignity, cheerfulness and a gentle, yet strong, determination to make the most of their situation.
An energetic man intent on helping his people, the local priest, Fr Biong, has found donors to pay for many truckloads of rough hewn timber, bamboo and matting to be brought to Agok. The people will make themselves tukuls – mud and stick walled houses with grass roofs. Fr Biong had arranged this for 6,400 households but just as he was getting ready to distribute the building materials, he found further displaced people had arrived. They are living under trees with no food and little water – more than 400 families, mostly women and children, who have fled from recent fighting. With the aid of the Governor of Abyei, Fr Biong managed to get 200 bags of sorghum for these recent arrivals but I am not sure how they will cook it as they have no pots or pans!
We were in Agok to teach English to more than a hundred teachers. Some walked two hours each way to get to our classes. Attendance was very good. The parish provided a chair for each teacher but none had desks to use, even when they were sitting for tests. Not once did I hear a teacher complain about their situation – although two did complain that they thought I had given them one mark less out of a hundred than they deserved!
Sunday mass, in the outdoor ‘Church’ was crowded. There were four adult baptisms celebrated with joyful singing and dancing by some in the congregation. The Abyei Church is alive and well not only in liturgy but with many parish meetings, a young choir who practice regularly, and a youth group intent on social action to help those in need. There are no trappings of pomp – just sincere, faith-filled participation and mutual support.
There are kids almost everywhere. Many are crowded into whatever classrooms are available while others are simply taught in the open or under a tree. I don’t know how the schools will cope when rain arrives. The friendly children love to shake a Kawadja’s hand and call out, ’How are you?’ with a heavy accent on each of the words. The most common response when this question is asked is, ‘I am very fine thank you!’ One does indeed get the impression they do feel very fine thank you in this dry, dusty, desolate district.
Are these people modern day Jobs? They lack easy access to clean water and getting enough food is a continuing challenge for them. The aid programmes provided by the UN, the Church and some NGOs are essential indeed. Like Job, these people are patient in adversity and grateful for the help they receive. In my mind, I contrasted their struggles with my biggest problem in Agok, the pit latrine that I had to use and was ready to curse!
The Abyei people would be delighted to have access to this facility that I despised!
Perhaps, more than help with English, we bring them hope that they are not forgotten. We, as part of the Church, are walking with them in their search for a future that offers greater opportunity – and like Job, we also learn to adapt and praise the God of love.