Paul Jeffrey, February 12, 2009

A letter to my supporting congregations
12 February 2009 - Yei, Southern Sudan

Dear friends:

I’m a big fan of early morning sunlight. Especially in Africa, the low angle
make those early rays of light almost magical as they illumine faces, especially
eyes, in a way that makes it much easier to capture compelling images. So even
though I’d love to sleep late, I inevitably insist on getting up while it’s
still dark in order to be in the field when the sun comes up. It doesn’t win
me any points with colleagues, and it certainly complicates cultural
relationships in an environment where being on time is a relative concept. Yet
it does provide a different vantage point on what’s happening in the world.

I’m in Southern Sudan currently, wrapping up a week of interviews and
photography. Sudan is the geographical focus of the mission schools this coming
summer, so I came here to prepare material to help others understand the unique
challenges of the semi-autonomous south of the country. The people here suffered
during decades of bloody civil war before a 2005 peace agreement with the
Khartoum government ended the fighting and prepared the way for possible
autonomy in the near future. There’s a United Methodist Church here–small,
poor and somewhat dysfunctional–and UMCOR is drilling wells and building
schools, while at the same time training community and parents groups to be
involved in making schools work.

As we’ve set off toward rural villages in the predawn darkness, we’ve wound
through the rutted streets of Yei, the headlights of our four-wheel drive
vehicle illuminating the thatched roof huts of the poor–and between the houses
and along the road, scores of women walking in the dark to fetch water. Women
and girls are the water carriers of this world, and here as in so many places
they rise long before men to begin that task while it is still cool. And since
there simply aren’t enough hand-pumped wells to meet everyone’s needs, the
earlier they start the better chance they have to get what their family needs.

If you’ve got a little more money, you can hire a woman to get you water. One
United Methodist woman I met, Tamara Kako, is a widow who supports her family by
carrying water to construction sites and middle class homes. Carrying two to
three gallons on her head during each trip, she can earn a couple of dollars in
four to five hours of work. When she’s done carrying someone else’s water,
then she can start to carry what she needs to feed and bathe her family and keep
her dirt-floored hut clean.

Tamara and the other women who start carrying water in the shadowy mornings
work all day long. And they work hard. Like poor women around the planet, they
and their children survive because of the women’s strength and stamina.

I flee from generalizations, but after years of observing life in poor
countries I’m convinced that women work harder than men. Women rise earlier,
work later, and while they enjoy moments of conversation at the well, they
don’t have the apparent luxury that men do to while away hours playing card
games in the shade, shooting pool, or whatever else the culture dictates as
acceptable male pastimes, activities usually accompanied by alcohol of some

In a place like Southern Sudan, building a functioning democracy and
flourishing economy in the wake of decades of war means putting everyone to
work, and not just at carrying water. It means ending cultural and legal
practices that demean women and devalue the gifts they bring to the common
table. That’s a long struggle, both within the larger society as well as
within the church–which too often and in too many places simply replicates
internally the sexist logic of the culture around it.

I’ll be writing about some of these issues for Response magazine, but for now
I just want to give thanks for the many ways that God is pushing us to empower
women. UMCOR is drilling wells which mean shorter trips to fetch water, and
insisting that girls get a chance to go to school by providing scholastic
materials, uniforms and sanitary pads–all items they need to participate fully
in school life. The United Methodist Women of Southern Sudan, few of whom are
literate and all of whom are poor, are working together to dig community gardens
and learn tailoring skills and use microcredit creatively to keep their families
healthy–even in the absence of support from male church leaders who don’t
accept women’s full participation in the life of the church.

I’m about to head home, a place I haven’t been much in the last three
months. I’ll be home for a solid month, writing articles and editing photos
from recent trips to Sudan, Malawi, Central America, and the Congo. I’ll
probably get up early many days, making coffee with water that I can obtain
simply by turning on the tap. I’ll think of those women carrying water in the
darkness here, and I’ll reflect on how the political and economic choices we
make in North America impact on their lives in far away places like this. And
I’ll remember those women who got up early on that Sunday morning long ago,
while the men were still sleeping, and went to the tomb to attend to Jesus’
body. They discovered the risen Christ, and our lives are still changed today as
we listen once again to their story. Let us keep on listening to the early
morning stories of our sisters, in our neighborhoods and around the world.


PS: Thanks to all of you for the creative and often sacrificial ways you’ve
work to raise money to support my ministry. Despite economic hard times, last
year your congregations–large and small–gave a total of $45,072.16 toward my
support. While that’s less that the year before, it’s a lot more than my
salary as a missionary–so it also goes to support health care, pension, and
other related costs. If there are ways I can support your fundraising for
mission, please let me know.

Page Topic: